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Prison and Probation Services

2 pm

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): A little over 15 years ago, a local magistrate was selected as a prospective parliamentary candidate for an east midlands constituency. At that time, the prison population was somewhat under 40,000, and some of those prisoners had been sent down by him. During a long 30-month campaign as a loyal Labour activist, he was ultra-critical of the then Conservative Government, as Britain was imprisoning more people per head of population than any other country in the European Economic Community. If someone had told him that the prison population would double in a decade and a half, he would have been saddened. If he had been told that rapid growth would occur during two back-to-back Labour Governments, he could not and would not have believed it.

The constituency was North-West Leicestershire, and the candidate, who is now the MP, was me. I am therefore particularly pleased to have secured this debate on the future of the prison and probation services. Both halves of the topic are of considerable interest and concern to me. I will deal in some detail with probation but speak more briefly about the Prison Service, as I believe that others wish to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on that matter.

The Home Office announced in early 2004 that it was creating the National Offender Management Service. At first, it appeared that NOMS would merge the prison and probation services, but it is now clear that, rather than being merged, the probation service is to be dismantled in order to create an American-style corrections agency based on the 10 regions of England and Wales. That centrally driven change will erase local accountability, adversely affect crime prevention initiatives and undermine co-operative work with other criminal justice agencies. I believe, and am sad to say, that the drive behind the change is an ideological commitment by my Government to privatisation. There has been no prior consultation with stakeholders or parliamentarians about the proposals. No business case has been produced to justify the changes or the introduction of market forces. Scores of parliamentary questions asking for the details of the organisation remain unanswered, and the blueprint for NOMS changes weekly. An internal programme risk register says that the probability of the project running into real difficulties is high or very high.

It is critical that probation work remains part of a single service. Research shows that case management, which is to be retitled "offender management", is most effective when it is closely integrated with intervention. The proposal for NOMS splits those two basic functions, and in so doing it can only reduce the effectiveness of probation service work at a time when the service is performing better than ever before. The very existence of the probation service is based on the belief that prison sentences should be reserved for those who have committed the most serious offences and who pose the highest risk of harm, and that the majority can effectively be rehabilitated in the community. The creation of NOMS with its regional bureaucracy and its emphasis on punishment may put that basic philosophy at risk.
 
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The probation service provides the court with a range of community orders that reflect the seriousness of the offence, risk of harm, risk of further offending and individual need. Staff work with individuals to reduce their reoffending and to protect the public. A failure to comply with the supervision leads to breach action through the courts and can result in a prison sentence. All that work is underpinned by values of self-determination and the potential for change. The aim is to deal with people in constructive ways that do not degrade or damage them further. Providing support and advice on related problems such as the lack of basic skills, accommodation and unemployment is also key to the work of the service.

The whole concept of NOMS and its design need rethinking. The Home Office has produced a blueprint for NOMS whose key elements are the separation of offender management activity from the provision of intervention and services—the two strands will be managed separately—a clear purchaser and provider split between regional offender managers as commissioners and a range of organisations as providers, and a central spine of accountability and responsibility on offender management. That statement is seriously flawed, and lacks any element of vision or values.

A vision statement should clearly express the objectives of an organisation in a way that builds commitment and clearly reflects its values. In stark contrast to the current statement of purpose for the Prison Service and the current aims of the probation service, backed up by its values, the proposed vision for NOMS does not meet those criteria. It is silent on the objective of the rehabilitation of offenders; on core values and principles; on achieving diversity and treating people with humanity; on supporting staff; on the principle of openness and transparency; and on the need for an approach based on partnership and collaboration.

Instead, the proposed vision is preoccupied with the establishment of a competitive market and the separation of commissioners and providers. There is an absence of sympathy with the current practice and historic development of the probation service. Aspects of the vision and its accompanying mission statement are, frankly, disingenuous. For example, the declared mission statement for NOMS refers to

yet the NOMS vision dispenses with the principle of partnership working and introduces instead the concept of "developing a competitive market". Rather than "breaking down the silos", as referred to in Patrick Carter's report, new and deeper silos are to be constructed and introduced.

Despite a reference in the principles to

there is a complete absence of a professional "what works" approach to the establishment of NOMS. Instead, it is being established on the basis of a set of unproven and undemonstrated assertions and dogmas, with no business case yet produced. The proposed vision for NOMS does nothing to address the uncertainty and
 
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low morale experienced by staff during its chaotic introduction. It only compounds further the lack of openness and transparency with which NOMS is being introduced: it has been the subject neither of proper parliamentary scrutiny nor any legislative process.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that some increased uncertainty is caused by the fact that the probation service has been so recently reorganised? In my area, a new probation service area was introduced as recently as 2001.

David Taylor : I fully accept that point. I am in regular contact with a number of probation officers in my area, and I know of the trauma that has been endured because of those changes. A further such change now, with a lack of consultation, is not to be desired. The NOMS statement also compounds the disregard for the interests, concerns and views of staff, which my hon. Friend mentioned. In the consultation exercises last year, many people opposed the dismantling of the probation service, and they have been ignored. That compounds the lack of principles and values underpinning NOMS to inspire commitment and pride from staff, as well as the lack of clarity about the future direction and governance of NOMS.

There are alternatives that would deliver the Government's objectives, which I share—enhanced end-to-end sentence management, an increased role for community sentences in the sentencing process and, most importantly, a reduction in reoffending. The staff and their trade union representatives believe that such aims could be better met by developing models that enable structural reorganisation within the existing 42 boards, as my hon. Friend mentioned, which should continue to employ both offender case managers and intervention staff.

Such reorganisation should enable the commissioning of further services and contestability to be done with a clarity of roles, building on the spirit of partnership rather than of competition. It should enable the probation service to remain as an integrated service with a continuing identity with its own director general, supported as appropriate by the NOMS structures of the Home Office and the national probation directorate. Finally, it should also build on the model of the youth offending teams and the model now being introduced in Scotland for prisons and local authorities to require criminal justice agencies to work together locally.

I turn now to contestability, which used to be a two-word quality, highly prized by sportspeople, beauty queens and politicians. When it is welded into a one-word new Labour concept, however, it should be treated with scepticism. The Government say that they are not interested in using the private sector for its own sake, but there is not a scrap of evidence that the private sector can deliver public services more effectively or cheaply than the public sector; the very reverse is true. The community and voluntary sector, on the other hand, has an existing relationship with the probation service and operates with the same public sector ethos as the national probation service itself. A mixed economy involving the community and voluntary sector already exists, and it is by far a preferable option to privatisation.
 
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The weasel word "contestability" was introduced in the document "Reducing Crime, Changing Lives". The Government are fighting shy of such terms as "privatisation" or "outsourcing"; in a separate context, I raised that point in Deputy Prime Minister's questions today. It is unsurprising that the Government are fighting shy of such terms, given privatisation's failure to deliver in the past. Contestability is a flawed model that will result in more expensive, poorer-quality services from non-accountable providers.

The current NPS facilities management contracts are an example of how the use of the private sector has led to increased costs for poorer service standards. The service has discovered to its cost and detriment that private companies owe a first loyalty to their shareholders rather than to their public sector clients and the broader population. There is no evidence whatever that the private sector has been able, for example, to run prisons more cheaply than the public sector. I shall return to that point briefly later.

Providing a cheaper service would have to be, as it always has been, at the expense of labour standards in a two-tier work force. The Government's failure to extend protection against the two-tier work force beyond best value authorities raises suspicions in my mind that NOMS may try to deliver cheaper privatised services by driving down employment standards on outsourced contracts.

We should fight contestability as a route to privatisation on the following grounds. It would fragment integrated service delivery, because all public services use cross-subsidy and integration to share risks and the cost of delivery across diverse populations and communities. Moreover, the private sector is unlikely to bid for NOMS services that have higher than average supply costs, such as rural services, because without cross-subsidy, they cannot be made profitable.

We should also fight contestability because public services such as probation are not commodities; they exist to support the social and economic well-being of communities. We should fight it because public-private partnerships cost more than conventionally funded projects; they borrow at higher rates than the public sector, demand higher rates of return—typically, the rate is 19 per cent. for one prison at Bridgend—and they have high set-up costs involving solicitors, accountants like me and others. Furthermore, they involve a convoluted procurement process and escalate in both scale and cost.

We should fight contestability because the high cost of private finance initiative projects often leads to an affordability gap for the procuring authority, and that gap is often met by reductions in services and capacity. I shall quote briefly comments made by one member, whom I know well, who works in a hostel setting. He sets out his frustration at the abject failure of hostel arrangements to deliver a quality service:

Those powers-that-be include the Minister.

If that is the future under contestability, quality of service is under real threat. The artificial split of the probation service into purchaser-provider functions is
 
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utterly irrational. The service should remain as a coherent whole and be given proper investment for growth—particularly for hostels and other interventions. The quality of service is under threat because the proposed purchaser-provider split will be expensive to set up and problematic and costly to manage, and it will lead to problems for communication, integration and risk management. We need a strong, efficient and effective probation service. The NOMS proposals do not provide a basis on which to achieve that. The consultation timetable has to be reset and the NOMS review's terms of reference widened to allow alternatives to be explored.

I turn to the future of the Prison Service. The publication in January 2004 of the Government's response to Patrick Carter's review of correctional services has effectively thrown the Prison Service into limbo. More than 14 months later, the service and those working in it remain uncertain about what lies ahead. All those working in and around the criminal justice system continue to acknowledge the great improvement made in recent years by the Prison Service in standards, decency and performance. That has been done through partnership, not through the perpetual use of threats from Ministers—although not, I hasten to say, from the Minister present today—and senior civil servants. Those programmes facilitated improvements in the Prison Service, through partnerships and co-operation, not threats, to a level where there are no failing prisons in England and Wales. The threat of market-testing establishments is not necessary and is being used only to achieve a Prison Service for profit ethos.

Let us consider prisons and the purchaser-provider model. A fundamental aim of the ideologically based concept of the National Offender Management Service experiment, on which its future success or failure is based, is the control of the prison population. In April 2004, the prison population reached an historical high of more than 75,000, which is just below its working operational capacity. On 11 March 2005, the population had returned to those historically high levels and stood at 75,479, although the capacity had increased to cover the predicted population increase. Nevertheless, as a magistrate, I have visited numerous prisons and I know that grossly overcrowded establishments remain.

The most fundamental component of the accepted Carter recommendations is the introduction of a purchaser-provider model for the delivery of prison places. For that to be achieved, the purchaser must have an element of choice in deciding where to purchase the service that they require, otherwise there is not a genuine market. With the prison estate as overcrowded as it is, a purchaser-provider model cannot and should not be introduced, because the element of choice does not exist. It is widely acknowledged by everyone working in the criminal justice system that the prison population needs to be managed. For many people, the question is whether we need NOMS to achieve that, and for the vast majority of those people, the resounding answer is no.

I turn to the future funding of Her Majesty's Prison Service. It is widely accepted that for a number of years the service has been overcrowded and under-resourced. Since the end of last year, the prison population has increased by more than 2,000. Despite the apparent failure of the chief executive of NOMS to achieve his primary aim of reducing the prison population, he has
 
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more than once outlined his intention to reduce growth in funding for the Prison Service in future. No organisation can achieve its goals if it is starved of the necessary funding. Martin Narey intends to freeze Prison Service funding. In that context, we should look at early-day motion 603, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), who will no doubt refer to it himself.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): I am listening carefully to the case that the hon. Gentleman is making and I agree with a lot, if not all, of what he says. Does he agree that this is an unprecedented time of uncertainty in the Prison Service and that the Government are forcing it to freeze budgets and recruitment, to stop decorating and maintaining prison cells and to take cells out of operation when the prison population is still increasing?

David Taylor : The Prison Service would not fare well under the major public sector cuts that are anticipated should the hon. Lady's party be elected. However, to deal with her point directly, the Government see budget capping as an incentive for greater diversion to community sentences, which is worth while, as is reviewing the nature of the offences committed by people in prison.

To deliberately and with forethought starve the public sector of the funds that it needs to deliver the service that is expected is unacceptable. This year, we have already seen mothballing of usable prison places and regimes and programmes curtailed due to a lack of resources. A continuation of Martin Narey's stated plans will inevitably lead to the Prison Service failing to achieve ministerial targets, through no fault of its own. To date, after almost 15 months, the chief executive of NOMS has not published the detailed business case to prove that the formation of the new service was necessary.

In November 2004, the Home Office admitted that a detailed business case was being prepared and it was said that a draft was to be placed before the NOMS programme board on 22 November. Despite numerous calls by Members of Parliament for publication of the business case for the creation of NOMS, it has still not been made available. The NOMS programme accelerates into chaos with blithe disregard for events.

In 2004–05, the cost of establishing the correctional service headquarters is in excess of £105 million, which is a huge increase in non-front-line delivery costs. There will also be a requirement for more than 50 staff in each of the regional offender manager sites. The costs of those extra staff will further deplete the resources of front-line services. It is not surprising, when the estimates are considered, that NOMS declined to provide the business case, to which I referred, to justify the continuation of the project on value-for-money grounds.

The glaring weaknesses of PFI seem apparent to all but Ministers. Public-private partners profit from people; the trend in PFI contracts has been to reduce the salaries of staff delivering public services and to cut jobs. Privatisation has led to a two-tier work force in which
 
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new starters on contracts receive much lower salaries and benefits than transferred staff. It has led to pensions that are not properly protected under TUPE. Unacceptably, equality suffers under privatisation: many public sector private contracts are delivered by a class of women workers who have no decent occupational pension scheme and who work on inferior terms and conditions. PFI has also led to private companies making unacceptable profits. A National Audit Office report showed that Group 4 and Carillion boosted their expected profit from the Fazakerley prison contract by 75 per cent. Refinancing produced £10 million for them, of which only £1 million was paid back to the Prison Service. That is another example of the private sector putting profits before public service.

It may be apparent from some of my remarks that I do not have a great deal of confidence in the brave new world into which the Government are pitching the probation and prison services. I look forward to my hon. Friend the Minister telling me in detail next Tuesday at 1 o'clock in Room O in Portcullis House why I am wrong. In all seriousness, I have a great deal of confidence in, and respect for, the Minister answering today's debate. I know him reasonably well and his reputation is rightly high. In his earlier political life, he was dubious about high prison populations and the role of the private sector in the delivery of public services. As his route from Manchester and Sale to Marsham street clearly took in Damascus, he will no doubt explain to the Chamber the background to this second conversion of a man named Paul, albeit in the wrong direction.

2.22 pm

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), who introduced the debate, for securing it and bringing this subject to our attention. I shall try not to repeat too much of what he said, because I agreed with virtually all of it. I had hoped that we might be having a similar debate at about this time on the Management of Offenders and Sentencing Bill, which was introduced in the other place, but so far it does not even have a date for Second Reading. It therefore looks highly likely that it will not be proceeded with this side of the general election, which puts the debate off even further.

One of my major concerns, which I share with my hon. Friend, about the process that we are going through in establishing NOMS is the lack of debate in Parliament. I make no criticism of my hon. Friend the Minister for that. He has been generous with his time in meeting me and other hon. Members present. Through the justice unions parliamentary group, he has made every effort to meet and talk to us and we have been very grateful, but there has not been a wider debate in Parliament. The number of hon. Members who have signed the early-day motions on this subject shows that there is considerable concern, but there has not been an opportunity for a full debate.

I am also concerned that, although we have not had a full debate, the reorganisation and restructuring and the setting up of NOMS are moving on. A chief executive was appointed some time ago. More recently, regional offender managers have been appointed, even though they have no regions to manage as yet. Some, I understand, are continuing to do other jobs and will do
 
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for the foreseeable future—perhaps for another year or two—as well as taking on the regional offender management role.

Even though I have probably spent more time on this subject than most other subjects in the House in the last year or so, I am still confused about exactly what is happening to the structures, who is responsible for what, what the relationship really is between the regional offender managers and the probation boards, and the future of the boards themselves.

In July last year, the Minister announced that, in the light of the consultation exercise that had taken place since January and the publication of the Carter report, he had decided not to do away with the 42 existing probation boards, but that he was still going to bring in regional offender managers. In making the decision not to do away with those boards, he used the phrase "at this stage". That seems to leave open the possibility, at the very least, that at some point in the future those probation boards will cease to exist.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister will know this because he kindly organised a meeting with the south-west appointment to NOMS where I raised the very point that my hon. Friend is talking about. Members of my board have written to me questioning their present and future role. So, there is a real problem. I am sure that he would say that things are similar in his area.

Mr. Gerrard : That is the case. I have certainly spoken to members of probation boards who find themselves in a situation of considerable confusion. They are not really sure yet quite what the relationship with the regional offender managers is supposed to be. If the ROMs are involved in making decisions about budgets, what does that imply? Who is actually the employer? Legally, as I understand it, the probation boards are the employers of the probation service, but if someone else starts to make decisions about budgets, performance and innovation, it is far from clear to me quite what that will mean for the boards in exercising their responsibility as employers. From talking to people who work in the probation service and the Prison Service, it is absolutely clear that there is a huge amount of uncertainty and worry among staff over their future and where their services are going.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire pointed to the issue of contestability. I know that the Minister will tell us that contestability is not privatisation. We have had that conversation several times. However, I have to say to him that, from the point of view of the people out there who are working in the service, it feels very much like privatisation. There is no question but that that is what it feels like to staff. If the probation service is to be split into purchaser and provider, and work is to be put out to tender, that feels very much as if some of it will be privatised. There is no question but that the talk about market testing of prisons certainly implies the possibility—if not the probability—of private providers taking over.

I recall being involved—I think in 1993—in the first debates in the House about the introduction of private prisons in the UK. I certainly recall the comments of the
 
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then shadow Home Secretary—I think that his constituency was Sedgefield—and the opposition that we put forward from the Labour Benches to privatisation. My hon. Friend pointed out what has been happening in the Prison Service.

David Taylor : I am interested to hear the provenance of the remarks that my hon. Friend just mentioned. Another remark from the same source would be something along the lines of "What matters is what works." One therefore draws the inference that if something does not work, it does not matter and we should revert to the normal model. Is that not a reasonable line of logic?

Mr. Gerrard : That is logical. There is also a logic that says that if things are working and going well, why restructure them? If it is not broken, why try to fix it? Given that not a single prison in the public service is classified as a failing prison, why market test? In 2003, the National Audit Office reported on the operational performance of private prisons. It said that the experience of that performance had been mixed: some private prisons had delivered; some of the best private prisons compared with the best prisons in the public sector and that the worst prisons at the bottom were performing at least as badly as public sector prisons.

The NAO acknowledged that private prisons had brought some innovation into the way in which they recruited and used their employees, but said that there was little difference in daily routine. It concluded that the use of private prisons was not a guarantee of success. I have seen no real evidence to back up the statement that the existence of private prisons has had an dramatic effect on how non-private prisons operate. It was said that private prisons have been one of the factors in driving up performance in the public sector. I cannot recall seeing reports of detailed research into such matters.

My hon. Friend referred to prison numbers. That is clearly a huge problem and it is not unique to the United Kingdom. What is happening to prison numbers in many countries is interesting. I recently saw statistics that stated that, from November 1998 to June 2004, in countries where prison numbers could be counted with some reliability, numbers had increased from 8 million to 9 million. Between 1992 and 2004, there had been an increase in the prison population of more than 50 per cent. in 50 countries. The United Kingdom was one of those countries, but the other countries ranged from Argentina, Australia, Cambodia and Spain to Singapore.

David Taylor : A subset of the large prison population that will be of importance and relevance to my hon. Friend's constituency is the larger number of young black men in prison than at university. Should we not be trying much harder than we are as a society and a Government to work with non-custodial sentences and divert people from criminal and antisocial activity?

Mr. Gerrard : That is absolutely right. There are disproportionalities in the prison population in respect of young black men. A worrying trend is the increasing number of young Asian men who are ending up in prison, often through drugs offences. We must be aware of the number of people who are in prison on remand.
 
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Recently, there has been a drop in the remand number, but it is still large and adds to the pressure inside prisons. As my hon. Friend said when referring to such pressures, it seems that money is being diverted into setting up the new centralised structures for NOMS, so we are ending up with prisons having unused accommodation. We have prisons with wings that are being refurbished, but the money is not there to bring them back into use with the result that other parts of the same prison are overcrowded. The number of overcrowded prisons is still large. How far does spending money on setting up new bureaucratic structures deal with such problems?

We must consider what contestability or privatisation does to staff morale. There is no doubt that, when there has been privatisation, staff terms and conditions are affected. The research that was done on private prisons showed that prison officer pay was on average between 24 and 32 per cent. lower in the private sector than in the Prison Service, and that a Prison Service pension was between 10 and 13 per cent. more valuable than a pension available to someone employed in the private sector. We have already seen those effects in the prisons, so it is no wonder that prison officers are concerned about more market testing. It is also not surprising that people in the probation service, having seen what has happened in the Prison Service, have started to vent concern about what will happen to them if a purchaser-provider split and privatisation come into parts of that service.

The Minister has said to us before that people should not be too worried because there will be a growing market with more work and that the Government want to do more through the probation service and services associated with it. No one whom I have spoken to in the probation service or Prison Service has any problem with the idea of co-operating more closely or working with drugs agencies that are not necessarily in the public sector. What they are worried about is that their jobs will be put out to tender, and there is no question but that that has an effect on staff morale. We have seen real improvements over recent years, and there are serious questions about what we are doing to staff morale at the moment.

My hon. Friend mentioned the business case for NOMS, which we still have not seen, and we do not know when or if we will see it. That again raises some major questions about what is happening now, before the business case has been seen.

We said at the beginning that the Minister has been extremely helpful to those of us who are interested in the issue. He has met us frequently, discussed what is happening and tried his best to keep us informed, and we are genuinely grateful for that. I suspect that he did not dream up some of the ideas that he is lumbered with and having to implement, and that we might be doing some different things if he was taking all the decisions. However, I hope that he will take on board the fact that there are still concerns and consider whether now is the time to be pressing ahead with the reorganisation. We do not know really where we are going or how we intend to get there, and we have not had either the legislation or the full debate in both Houses of Parliament that we should have had.
 
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David Taylor : My hon. Friend talked about the reduced pay and conditions of the staff in the private sector. Will he comment on the lack of training or poorer quality training for those staff? The regimes for which they will be responsible will be lower quality purely because of that. Is that not a factor?

Mr. Gerrard : That has certainly been an issue in some of the private prisons. The prisons that have been privatised tend to have been new buildings and at the easy end of the market. A lot of work has been done to improve the prison estate, but none of the old buildings that are more difficult to manage has been taken over by the private sector.

To conclude, I think that we should step back and be careful about rushing ahead with something that has not had the full debate in this place that it should have had.

2.39 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I apologise for being late. I was trying to intervene in the Budget debate, but Mr. Speaker informed me that although I have prepared a detailed alternative Budget, the world will have to wait for it until later as I have spoken enough in the House recently.

I want to make a few brief points. As hon. Members will know, last year a group of us came together to form an all-party justice unions group. Members who are in the Chamber—other than the Minister, obviously—are members of that group. We formed the group as a result of the NOMS proposals, to enable us to have a direct view from the staff—the people who are at the work face and who will have to implement the proposals if the House approves the legislation and the Government proceed with it after the general election.

The consternation that has come from all sections of the professional staff has alerted us to the fact that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) said, we need time to think again about the proposals. I will not reiterate the anxieties that people have expressed about privatisation, except to say that we all know of examples of privatisation in the individual services. The problems in some areas, in particular with detention centres, have demonstrated people's concerns about private companies operating with staff who are often inadequately trained, paid and supervised. That is one of the lessons that we need to learn before we go forward with any further privatisations.

I will give one other example. It is of a Ministry of Defence privatisation of the records office in my constituency. Last week, a parliamentary question was answered about agency staff who had been brought in by TNT and who were dismissed for having drugs on site. Drug usage on site has become a problem with agency staff as a result of privatising the service and laying off the staff who were employed by the MOD. That is one example, but many others could be cited.

The second issue concerns why we are going down this road when Scotland is considering a different route. We could take two routes: one is the almost obsessional ideological commitment to market testing, contestability or compulsory competitive tendering, or whatever fashionable term one uses to describe it. That is one route that involves a purchaser-provider split. It tries to model
 
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public services on the supposed operation of private services in the private sector. In fact, most private sector operations do not work that way. There is not always a split between purchaser and provider. The rigorous tendering processes that we go through ad nauseam do not necessarily operate in the private sector. In the private sector, there is much more flexibility about continued usage of staff and bringing services in-house as companies expand to ensure that they can perform a multifaceted role in that individual company. So we are modelling privatisation—or contestability, or whatever one chooses to call it—on a myth that does not operate in the same form in the private sector.

The alternative route is the multi-agency approach. For a long time, I thought that there was a political and professional consensus about the value of that approach, whereby different professional groups would come to the same table. They would exchange their professional judgments and develop systems of operation through which, working together, they could tackle the problems that their services needed to challenge.

David Taylor : Does my hon. Friend agree that one example of multi-agency work introduced by our Government that has worked, is working and is an example to future reorganisations is that of the youth offender teams?

John McDonnell : Youth offender teams are an example, as are the drug action programmes, but there are such examples throughout virtually every public service. The local strategic partnerships that exist in all our authorities involve multi-agencies coming together to talk about common concerns and meet common challenges and to deploy their professional services in a way that adds value—I beg the Chamber's pardon for that expression—to all that the agencies are doing in their fields. There is example after example of multi-agency approaches. I repeat that, until a couple of years ago, I thought that there was cross-party and cross-professional consensus that the multi-agency approach was the way forward, considering the failures of compulsory competitive tendering and contestability elsewhere, particularly in local government and the localised services that we provide.

Scotland has gone through that consultation. There has been extensive discussion at every level, and people's views have been taken into account. As a result, the overwhelming view from the professionals and the communities that they serve was that, rather than go down the contestability route, we should concentrate on the multi-agency approach. Because the new services will be playing such an important professional role, I would rather at least see what the Scottish experience is in the coming period before rushing into making any decisions about England in particular.

There is a real problem, which has been cited by several hon. Members: we are demoralising the very people whom we rely on to deliver the service. What we will see in the coming period, particularly within the probation service, is a flight of staff from the service itself. We will lose the experience that has been built up over generations. We will lose it because people will not feel secure about their future. They will not know whether they have a job in the public or the private
 
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sector: they will not know what rates of pay or conditions they will be working under or even what role they will play.

In addition, the staff's professionalism dictates that they want to succeed. They want to ensure that the service they deliver is effective. None of the staff we have spoken to from the all-party justice unions group has expressed confidence that this system will enable them to deliver. The importance of that for us as constituency MPs is that if they do not deliver and the system does not work we will be left not just with an escalating prison population but with large numbers of offenders coming out of prison on to the streets whose problems will not be addressed and who will continue to offend. That is a vista for the future that we need to take seriously.

We need to step back a bit. Once we get past the general election, in May or whenever, there will be an opportunity to go out to consultation again. The Government could start listening to staff professionals and communities in a way that we perhaps did not before. The Government have to be more transparent. We have praised the current Minister—I apologise for using the word "current"—for being extensively involved with the all-party group and meeting as many organisations as he possibly can. That is excellent, but behind those discussions and consultations there needs to be some real material. Not publishing the business case is an indication of a lack of confidence in the proposals and a lack of confidence in the information that is supposed to justify the Government's proposals.

It will need a bit of courage, but after the election the Government should announce a further round of consultation and discuss the proposals again, consider further options and engage in the dialogue that occurred in Scotland to see how those proposals were brought about in contradistinction to the Government's proposals.

Issues have been raised today that need to be addressed. The stability of funding of the Prison Service and the probation service has been a problem for several years. It became almost an autumnal event for us to meet to try to resolve the London probation service budgetary crisis. This year that was not the case, but time and again, we found that as we moved towards the end of the financial year, there was a period of near panic within the probation service; then the Home Office found some way, using creative accountancy, to ensure that we got through that financial year and we lobbied the Treasury for more resources the following year. It would be useful to try to obtain some stability within the probation service in the long term for its overall budget.

I emphasise the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow. We have met prison governors who have told us what the budgetary implications have been towards the end of this financial year, with individual wings being mothballed and overcrowding occurring. Again, they have told us that they need stability so that they can plan their local budgets. There needs to be stability nationally, too, so that there can be a period in which they can plan, based not just on the prison numbers that we project—we should do that more adequately—but on the objectives that they are meant to achieve with the budget they are given.
 
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What we are doing at the moment is setting objectives for both the Prison Service and the probation service that are unrealistic in relation to the amount of investment that we are ploughing into the overall service. I can understand how that has come about. The demands of our community mean we have to achieve the goal and turn around the regime of offending. At the same time, those measures must be followed up with overall investment. On that basis, I hope that after the general election the Minister either retains his brief or goes on to higher things, because he deserves it. If he retains his brief, I urge him to take on board the fact that we need discussion, consultation and the courage to think again and think more radically than we have done.

2.50 pm

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) on obtaining this debate. I also add my voice to those who have said kind things about the Minister and in particular how he has engaged with the all-party group on justice unions, of which I am vice-chairman. I should congratulate the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire not only on securing the debate, but on the content of his speech. His analysis of the economics of PFI and PPP gladdened my heart. There was nothing that he said with which I would disagree. I await the day of reckoning that must surely come when all the wonderful projects proceeding under PFI and PPP have to be paid for. The next generation will basically buy public services and infrastructure on tick, and that cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely. That prospect does not fill me with much happiness, and when that day comes it will give me no satisfaction to say "I told you so."

The hon. Gentleman said several times that the proposals were ideologically driven, and I can well see why. I wonder whether there is a full and proper understanding of the ideology, whatever that happens to be. We have a set of proposals driven by a few slogans or mantras about the desirability of competition and choice in the provision of public services, without any proper understanding of why some people—they do not necessarily include me—would want that competition and choice. An awful lot of what has been included in NOMS has probably been dreamt up by people who do not know the stark reality of service provision at the sharp end. If they have had that experience, it must be somewhere in their dim and distant past, and they must have become isolated from the reality of it.

I should declare an interest and a lack of interest in this debate. The lack of interest is due to the fact that, as the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said, the Scottish Executive have also considered the matter, and as I represent a Scottish seat, my constituency will not be directly affected by NOMS should it be introduced. However, I commend the Scottish Executive on how they considered the matter. They did so openly and transparently, and they engaged with criminal justice professionals in a way that I am afraid to say the consultation south of the border did
 
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not. Ultimately, having gone through the process openly and properly, the Executive decided not to proceed with NOMS.

David Taylor : Is the hon. Gentleman familiar with the comment made by the Scottish Justice Minister, Cathy Jamieson, when she introduced the relevant legislation? She said:

That is the key issue, is it not?

Mr. Carmichael : That is absolutely the key issue, and I suspect that the Minister might say the same in introducing NOMS. There is the premise outlined by Cathy Jamieson, with which I agree, and the conclusion. The conclusion that she and the Scottish Executive reached was encouraged in large part by Liberal Democrat Back Benchers in the Scottish Parliament, who are also in the Scottish Executive reining in some of the worst excesses of new Labour. The premise that the Minister would come up with is that NOMS is necessary. If it is necessary, however, the case has to be made for it, and one of the most remarkable features of this debate so far—not just today's debate, but the wider debate that has taken place throughout the preceding months—is that no such case has been made.

I am interested in this debate because I was a criminal court solicitor before I was elected to Parliament. I worked as both a defence agent and as a procurator fiscal deputy—a crown prosecutor—in Scotland, and I have strong views on this subject. I have worked a lot with criminal justice social workers, Prison Service staff and young offenders institution staff, and such experiences have given me a good insight into this topic. Hon. Members are right to deprecate the fact that we have not had a more substantial debate, because the matter under discussion is very important. The probation service and the Prison Service deal with some of the most vulnerable and damaged people in our society. The truth is that they have been failed time after time by the provision of public services; they have often been failed by the education service, by the social work service, and by care homes. I find distasteful the idea that at the end of all of that, they will be put into a system that, instead of addressing their needs, provides profit for private companies.

My greatest concern about NOMS is that we have a highly centralising process that will lead to privatisation. The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire spoke about contestability; I cannot but agree with what he said, because contestability is a good example of a new word for an old notion, where the old notion is unacceptable. It is like changing the name of Windscale to Sellafield. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck. If something looks like privatisation and sounds like privatisation, then in my book that is exactly what it is. That is unacceptable. The separation of commissioners and providers will create an entirely artificial market. The services in question are not normally provided in a marketplace, and the marketplace that will be created
 
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will be entirely artificial, and it will inevitably detract from the placing of resources at the front line, where they are most needed.

Let me deal now with the impact of the changes on the probation and prison staff. Those services are often among the least attractive for workers in the sector. The work that we ask such people to do is often a thankless task. If we do not place any value on the professionalism that they can bring to the work they do, I worry that the quality of service that they provide will ultimately be diminished. I know from my own experience working as a prosecutor in the early 1990s, when the previous Conservative Government were severely underfunding the procurator fiscal service in Aberdeen and throughout Scotland, that the ability of those in my office to do our job properly was reduced simply because we did not have sufficient resources, we were constantly stretched and we felt that nobody cared about the work we did. If we go ahead with NOMS, we risk sending that signal to workers in the probation and prison services.

As the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) said, we risk creating a two-tier work force. The measure that is being introduced appears to be all about making savings. Ultimately, they will be made at the expense of the training and fringe benefits, such as pension provision, of the people who work in prisons. I have had some experience of private prisons; I have had clients who were placed in Kilmarnock prison in Scotland, which was Scotland's first private prison. When one enters the prison, the infrastructure seems very impressive. There are lots of shiny new tables—there certainly were when I visited—nice paintwork and all the rest of it, and it all looks very good for the visiting politicians. However, on talking to the inmates about the quality of service provided, I realised where the savings have been made. That prison was the subject of a recent documentary in Scotland and some worrying aspects of how it is run have come to light in the past few days. I know that it is not the Minister's responsibility, but he should look closely at the lessons that are being learned in that prison at the moment.

I reiterate the comments made by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington in asking for more transparency and openness and for more answers to be given, particularly on the business case. If this process is about the creation of a marketplace, surely the business case should be central.

3.1 pm

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) on securing the debate, and I extend my commiserations to the Minister. As was said earlier, it is like déjà vu, as we have been in this Chamber before considering the future of the prison and probation services, and sadly, we do not appear to have made terrific progress.

It is ironic that the title of this debate could cover so many things. It could cover the situation in our prisons and the quality of the work there as reflected in the work of the inspectorate, the work of the prisons ombudsman, the position on prison officers' pensions or the announced closing of the prison ship Weare, but the entire debate has been dominated by NOMS, which seems to have turned into a black hole that absorbs
 
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every other debate on the Prison Service, the probation service and what happens to people who offend in our society. Today's debate, which has repeated so many points put to the Minister before, is a rather sad indictment.

I have several questions for the Minister that I hope he will have time to answer. First, what is happening with the Management of Offenders and Sentencing Bill? The Bill has been published, and it was introduced in the House of Lords on 12 January, but nothing has happened to it. It seems alarming that we are discussing something that has effectively been happening for more than a year, since last January's announcement, but we have still not had the chance to discuss the legislation on Second Reading or examine it in this House at all. It has been introduced in the Lords, and there it has stuck. I also ask the Minister to confirm the rumour that the Bill is to be withdrawn and redrafted because its provisions are in some difficulty. I would like him to address that point directly.

Our Prison Service is a mixed bag. Anne Owers, the chief inspector, describes it as suffering from a struggle between progress and pressure. I have been to a lot of prisons during the past 12 months and talked to many prison officers, probation service officers, governors and others involved in the criminal justice system, and I stand second to none in my admiration for the work that they carry out. In the main, the people who work in the service are dedicated and do a lot of good work in our community.

What do we expect of our prison and probation services—particularly the Prison Service? The ordinary man in the street expects that perpetrators of crime should be locked up to protect communities and in order to prove that if someone breaks the law they will be caught and punished. People also expect much more: they expect the redemptive and rehabilitative element to prevent reoffending, and they expect the services to address the enormous issues of poor education, drug and alcohol addiction and—this is now an overwhelming problem—mental illness among the prison population.

The security, transparency and effectiveness of the system is paramount, and despite the best efforts of those working in the system, the Prison Service still faces enormous problems. The service is still 24 per cent. overcrowded; there are at least two self-inflicted deaths a week; and last year prison staff bravely resuscitated 228 prisoners. There were almost 18,000 incidents of self-harm in prisons.

David Taylor : Will the hon. Lady include in her pantheon of desirable qualities for a Prison Service a requirement that the staff be well regarded, stable, well paid and well trained? That is not likely to happen under NOMS. Does she also agree that the service should be able to retain in its buildings those sent into custody? Under past Governments, particularly in their final years, were not early release schemes of an informal nature a daily occurrence?

Mrs. Gillan : I am not seeking to score political points on that aspect of the debate. As I said, people expect perpetrators of crime to be locked up and, as I should have said, to remain locked up. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and I would agree on that.
 
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To return to the statistics on the current state of our Prison Service, the female prison population has almost doubled under this Government. Sadly, women are twice as likely to kill themselves and 14 times as likely to carry out self-harm in that environment. The availability of drugs in our prisons is also an enormous problem. According to the inspector of prisons, that raises serious concerns. Drugs fuel abscondence from open prisons—something that the hon. Gentleman would obviously be concerned about—and in closed institutions, the advent of drugs is undermining safety and raising levels of debt, bullying and intimidation.

Education and training in prison is also proving to be a weak link. In the last report from the inspector, 18 training prisons were inspected, and only five were found to provide sufficient work and training for their prisoners. I am sure that the Minister is familiar with that information, and I know that he is trying to address those problems. However, it is ironic that I have a letter sent to the Prison Officers Association by no other than his esteemed Prime Minister, who wrote to David Evans before taking up the mantle at No. 10 Downing street:

Unfortunately, I do not think that there has been much progress in the Prison Service since the Prime Minister's words, which were spoken before 1997.

Against that background, there is the continuing development of NOMS, but the way in which that development is taking place does not inspire observers with confidence in the Prison Service or probation service. That has been reflected in our debate. I could take some pleasure in seeing the Minister chided and upbraided by Labour Members, but I do not, because we have been working in quite a good, non-partisan way on the subject. Our ultimate aim is basically the same—to provide a modern prison and probation service for the 21st century. As the Minister knows, however, I cannot ignore the large quantity of paper that is starting to reach my desk concerning comments on the development of NOMS that require answers from him. I hope that he will address some of those matters today.

The consultation process on the proposed NOMS headquarters has raised many issues. For example, the speed at which the proposals are implemented will present real challenges. The consultation process has been so sparse—it has also been rushed through—as to prevent the consultation with staff, and even with unions, that everybody has demanded in this debate. The new contractual arrangements and purchaser-provider relationships will require changes, particularly in relation to reskilling. What measures have been taken to clarify those arrangements? Will the Minister set out the decision processes, particularly on key areas such as information technology and property?

Can the Minister say how any lack of the resources needed to deliver centrally set standards will be taken into account in the assessment of the public sector Prison Service in a market test or in other forms of contestability? Those issues need to be laid out. How is he dealing with clarifying responsibilities and overlap? For example, how is he solving the problems of the
 
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apparent separation of security policy from security standards? What will he do about the boundary issues between pure policy and operational policy? How will he handle the transfer of work between the Prison Service and NOMS? Can he confirm that there are anxieties about transferring complete areas, which may leave skills voids and will be dealt with only by extra costs or reduced effectiveness?

What progress has the Minister made on the problems of the prison estate? As I understand it, the scope of responsibilities has not been clarified. How will he deal with the backlog of unfunded maintenance? That is an even more important aspect, because managers can be held personally liable under health and safety legislation. Managers are anxious to know the extent of the support available to them.

Will the Minister comment on the safer custody group and say what he has done to deal with the fears of duplication? Likewise, has he addressed the issues that arise from moving the drug strategy unit as a whole into the health partnerships? I would also like to hear his view on the management of high-risk and high-profile cases, as well as on the policy on sex offenders, domestic abuse and child abuse. Has he established clear lines of accountability so that no serious business or public protection risks are associated with the transfers of responsibilities?

Why is the Minister rushing forward with these proposals when I understand that both director generals do not wish him to proceed at such a pace. All the evidence suggests that the best way forward is for probation to be kept in the localities. In the past month, even the Local Government Association stated in its "Going Straight" report:

The report added:

The LGA does not believe that a regional approach will secure the Government's objective of energising local communities.

What is the justification for splitting the probation service into two sections—offender management and interventions—when all the research shows that the best way of working is to keep them together? I do not know whether the Minister is aware that on 10 February, in discussions involving probation board members, a senior NOMS staff member was asked why they were splitting the functions. He replied that there was no evidence that the offender management and interventions split would deliver anything, but said that it had to be done because of political diktat. Will the Minister confirm that that is the view among some officials? If that is the case, it is a worrying state of affairs.

The Scottish route has been laid out well. I would like to know why the Minister has not taken it. We have been encouraging him for months to do so. I feel rather sorry for him, because I feel that he is not driving the process; I feel that it is being driven by other areas of his party and by other provisions. The good will towards him is understood in this Chamber. I understand that the
 
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Prime Minister has been involved, and I want to know, as far as No. 10 is concerned, what sort of timetable has been imposed on the Minister?

David Taylor : Does the hon. Lady agree that the Minister may be a victim of forces that he cannot control and that he ought to be protected in the way that we try to protect victims in the penal area? We are trying to perform that role.

Mrs. Gillan : The hon. Gentleman is appealing to my maternal instincts. Of course, I would always want to protect the Minister.

Nevertheless, in the cold light of day, we have a mess on our hands, and it is exceedingly worrying. The Prison Officers Association, for which I have the greatest respect, has started lobbying on the issue and has produced an excellent pack. Once again, it asks a list of questions. It says that NOMS has so far failed to produce the business case and that the Minister has refused to publish the critical gateway review. We have asked for both those things. The POA says that £90 million has so far been spent on this matter. That has taken place against the background of frozen budgets. I must say to the Minister that that is the case because Prison Service budgets were taken away to shore up other parts of the Home Office, which is an appalling situation. The Prison Officers Association also says that he is ignoring the Gershon report, and that there will be more civil service bureaucracy. It says that there has been wholesale closure of Prison Service accommodation owing to the lack of adequate resources and that NOMS has directly caused further overcrowding. I could go on, but the Minister has heard this before. It is a great shame.

I have been very straight about my view of privatisation, but I refer once again to the Prime Minister's letter to the Prison Officers Association, written before he entered No. 10, in which he gave this assurance:

That promise has been totally and utterly broken by the Government and is living proof that they are not to be trusted.

Over the year in which I have been covering my current brief and enjoying my exchanges with the Minister—I hope that he has found them as constructive as I have—I have seen that these two services, which provide a great service to our community, are being torn apart by a bureaucratic management process that is being handled incorrectly. If there is a general election shortly and I find myself in his position, I will not find decisions easy to make, but I will pause and consult. I will ensure that I take a grip of the management process, because that is as much as the services deserve. They do not deserve the current chaos and uncertainty.

3.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins) : This has been an excellent debate conducted in a generous way. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-West
 
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Leicestershire (David Taylor) on his passionate and well-informed speech, which was based on long experience of the issues, and thank him for the kind words that he offered me.

Let me make it absolutely clear that there is uncertainty in our prisons and probation system. We are undertaking the biggest ever reform of those services, but I do not accept that the reform process is a mess. Let nobody be under any illusions about the fact that the Minister is driving that reform. Much as I accept the kind words and support—maternal and otherwise—from hon. Members, I assure them that the process is being driven forward, but that does not mean that we are not prepared to listen. Some of my previous actions demonstrate that I am prepared to listen, and I will continue to do so because it will be impossible to achieve what we have set out to achieve unless people work together. That requires all of us to work with the work force, management and those who drive policy to ensure that, wherever possible, we gain consensus or at least have a proper and full understanding.

My hon. Friend spoke about the lack of vision and values, and it might be helpful if I begin by setting out what I regard as the vision and values that drive the development of the National Offender Management Service. A number of them emanate from the work done by Patrick Carter, now Lord Carter, in the report that he presented to the Home Office just over a year ago, which we fully accepted.

The first issue is that of rebalancing the correctional system. My hon. Friend spoke about the days when the prison population numbered 40,000. I can be precise about the current numbers: there are 75,386 people in prison today, which is many more than all those years ago. What matters most is that the people in prison are those who need to be there. Serious, dangerous, violent or sexual offenders should be in prison for what they have done, and they should be there longer than has been the case in the past. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 and the Sexual Offences Act 2003 will ensure that that happens. However, prison places should not be wastefully taken up by people who are not dangerous. The less serious offenders could be given community sentences and thus put something back for the wrong that they have done. They would be paying the price but could remain at home, being in the community and engaging with the probation service.

On Monday, I was in Wigston—it is an area that my hon. Friend will know—to launch the national clean-up week. Offenders doing community service, which is unpaid work in the community, were refurbishing a sports facility and removing graffiti. That is precisely the kind of punishment that is appropriate for such people. We want to rebalance sentencing so that people are not given short-term prison sentences when they could be doing that sort of pay-back work. We also need to reinvigorate fines to ensure that they are properly enforced.

We will introduce proposals for a day fine in a management of offenders Bill, which I shall speak about in a moment. It is about rebalancing the system. It will also introduce offender management. At the moment, we have two systems—the Prison Service and the probation service. Yes, they work closer together than ever, but they are not sufficiently joined up when it comes to the management of individual offenders.
 
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We propose introducing a named offender manager for each offender. Each offender will have a sentence plan, and it will be the responsibility of the offender manager to ensure that the plan is fully carried out.

The offender manager will be accountable. One of the problems with the current system is a lack of accountability for the reducing of reoffending. That accountability will be put in place: that responsibility will be made clear to the offender manager. What we seek is what my hon. Friend called a central spine—offender managers managing the sentence plan, which could involve a custodial sentence, or intervention in the community, or both—as it will have a much bigger impact on reoffending.

The third element is that of contestability, which was mentioned by all Members who spoke this afternoon. As predicted, I will make it absolutely clear this afternoon that contestability is not privatisation. Privatisation means a service being given to the private sector—work for which the public sector is not permitted to compete. That is what privatisation means, whereas with contestability, all sectors are encouraged to compete for the work. I am actively encouraging the public sector Prison Service and those who run our probation services to gear up and be ready for contestability. I am confident that, with their professionalism, those services will win a great deal of the work. However, I also want the private sector to show us what it can do, and I want the voluntary and community sectors to show us what they can do, too.

I hope that I am not misquoting my hon. Friend, but I think he said he wanted a mixed economy. I want a mixed economy, but I want it to be based on adding value to the money that we invest. It is not about old-fashioned market testing, or reducing the cost to a minimal level. It is about driving more value out of the money that is invested in our correctional system. In a system that is bigger and in which more money than ever is being invested, I believe that everybody has a part to play; and if we develop that partnership, we can drive more value out of it.

Let be briefly describe the overall aim of the enterprise. We have to reduce the rates of reoffending. We spend £4 billion a year on our prison and probation services. That is £1 billion a year more than in 1997. Despite spending more, however, three in every five people who come out of prison are reconvicted within two years. We have to do better than that, which is why I seek reform.

Mr. Gerrard : Does the Minister recognise that the real sticking point is the question of contestability? None of us is going to disagree with a great deal of what he said, and none of the professionals will disagree. Obviously, when one enters on the major restructuring of a service, one might have difficulties with negotiation and so on. The real problem comes when people think that their jobs are at risk.

Paul Goggins : I am pleased to have been reasonably persuasive so far, but I accept what my hon. Friend says—that when people see changes that will impact on their jobs, they will clearly be fearful, uncertain and
 
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questioning. I acknowledge that it is my responsibility as the Minister and that it is the responsibility of all who are involved in the development of NOMS to ensure that the staff feel they are part of the whole enterprise and that their questions are answered. That remains my objective and—this has been acknowledged—I seek opportunities to listen and to engage in conversation. I have done that with the all-party justice unions group and accept that it has been a really important innovation. In order to develop better communication links and to get questions answered, I am considering the possibility of developing a new stakeholder forum with regular access to Ministers, in which trade unions, voluntary sector organisations and others could participate.

Speaking of answering questions, perhaps I ought to move on quickly and try to deal with some of the points that have come up in the debate. First, on consultation, I hope that I have made it clear that consultation is fundamental to the proposal. There were two formal consultations last year—one on Patrick Carter's report and the other on our proposals for organisational change—but it is clear that we will need to have more consultation. I absolutely commit myself to that and, as I mentioned, I hope that we will be able to develop the stakeholder group.

The business case was presented in outline form in Patrick Carter's report, but more is being done on it. The strategic outline business case and the full business case are under development. I say to my hon. Friend that it is not normal practice for the Government to publish the business case for their proposals. However, there has been an application under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 for information about it. That is being considered and, if we have to reveal the information as requested, I shall consider carefully whether in fact we publish the business case. I assure him that work on and consideration of the matter are ongoing. Clearly, there will be more to say on that in the future.

Mrs. Gillan : I am sorry that the Government have to be dragged kicking and screaming, through an application under the 2000 Act, into publishing the business case. It is obvious that the Minister will not have time to deal with all the points that have been raised, so before he sits down I would like him to undertake to write, before the recess, to each and every Member who has taken part in the debate, with answers to all the questions. That is a perfectly reasonable request, and if he agrees he will be able to relax a little rather than trying to deal with everything in the final three minutes.

Paul Goggins : That is a very helpful suggestion, and I am happy to undertake to do that, particularly as the hon. Lady asked many detailed questions which will need fuller answers.

On investment in the prison and probation services, the Government have built 17,000 additional prison places since 1997, and 3,000 more that are in the pipeline will be delivered by this time next year. The probation service work force will be 50 per cent. larger: it had 14,000 staff in 1997 and will have 21,000 staff by this time next year. That is a substantial increase, and there
 
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could be nothing further from the truth than any suggestion that this Government lack confidence in the probation service and are not investing in it.

I was grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for making the point that in the past there has been a budgetary problem in London but that this year, for the first time, there has not been a crisis. That is because we have invested real, hard cash in the probation service. The performance of the London probation service speaks volumes for the way in which the staff have been able to use that investment to drive up their own performance and make a real difference.

Yes, the Prison Service has taken some decisions in the very recent past to deal with overcrowding and to take out of use some prison cells that were to be refurbished earlier than planned, and, yes, we must keep costs under control, but nothing that has happened in the past few weeks and months in respect of taking out places has undermined the ability of the Prison Service to provide those whom it is charged with looking after with safe and secure accommodation.

NOMS continues to develop. The 10 regional offender managers are now in place. In due course, each and every Member of Parliament will be invited to meet their regional offender manager. It is important that they have the opportunity to meet the managers, to find out who they are and how to contact them, and to ask them questions.

The organisational structure is still under development. I withdrew the original proposal last July, but we continue to work on further development.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. We must turn our attention now to the next topic for consideration today.


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