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Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): As a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, I regularly meet people who work in the criminal justice system, and I am pleased to have secured this debate because everyone I have spoken to in the probation service and the Prison Service has told me of their deep concerns about the structure and implementation of the National Offender Management Service.
The concerns that I shall raise are similar to those discussed by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) and others in an Adjournment debate on 16 March, but they were not adequately addressed because of time constraints, and I hope to receive more satisfying answers today.
"Implement the orders of the courts and supervise offenders and those remanded in custody in such a way as to protect the public . . . Provide a range of effective interventions and services that are designed to reduce reoffending . . . Give offenders the opportunity to lead law abiding, productive and healthy lives . . . Work in a way that treats offenders fairly and with decency."
Similarly, discontent and decreasing morale among staff seem strange when one realises that there is fairly widespread acceptance of the objective of taking some responsibility for what happens to offenders once the court sentences them to different kinds of punishment.
Everybody applauds the sentiments of NOMS, but people are concerned about the organisational structure that is proposed to implement it. The current division of responsibilities between the Prison Service, the probation service and others leads to inefficient and disruptive services, as I have seen for myself during my visits to prisons and probation boards.
Nor are the existing arrangements conducive to providing services that promote offenders' rehabilitation and reduce their reoffending. No single organisation is ultimately responsible for the offender, which means that there is no clear ownership of the front line for reducing reoffending. Clear ownership is the goal that we all want to achieve, and the promotion of a single, integrated, seamless service that provides end-to-end management for offenders, whether they are sentenced to custodial or community punishment, therefore enjoys widespread acceptance and my support. The challenge, however, lies in how to achieve such integration to maximise the gains and minimise the risks involvedand the current risks are exceptional.
To explain the increasing concern felt by myself and others, it is important to put the introduction of NOMS in context. The decision to merge correctional services resulted from the review of those services led by Patrick Carter. The Carter report "Managing Offenders, Reducing Crime" found that although the Prison Service and the national probation service had achieved improvements,
NOMS has been identified as a way of remedying that. It came into existence five months after the Carter report had recommended its establishment and the Government had agreed to it in "Reducing CrimeChanging Lives". That was far too quick and meant that the Government's consultation strategy was patchy and ineffective and did not reassure people in the probation service that they had a voice or that their concerns would be heard.
"dismay that the Home Office appears to have taken far-reaching decisions without public or parliamentary scrutiny and consternation that those matters which have yet to be decided are offered only for 'comment or suggestion'".
Discussion with members of the probation service has provided me with a full picture of the Government's consultation strategy, and it makes that frustration perfectly understandable. In some cases, there was no consultation, and where it did exist, it involved sending just a few scant letters; there did not seem to be much of a coherent rationale behind them.
On 7 May 2004, under cover of a letter from Martin Narey, the Home Office issued information containing organisational and design proposals for consultation with probation boards and other interested parties. The overwhelming response to that consultation was critical of the brevity of the information that accompanied the proposals and the lack of any reference to local arrangements.
On 20 July 2004 the Minister withdrew the proposals and made various comments about how he saw the future of the National Offender Management Service. After that, it became increasingly difficult for the probation service and others, including me, to obtain meaningful information from anyone with any authority in the Home Office about the way forward for NOMS during the latter part of 2004.
It would appear that no clear proposals were forthcoming and no responses were available to the myriad questions that were being asked. The Probation Boards Association, representing probation boards throughout England and Wales, became so frustrated that I understand it wrote to the Minister in January 2005 expressing its view on the lack of progress and the paucity of information.
Whether those and other concerns were the trigger to action is not known, but a brief flurry of information followed, issued by the Home Office and containing various descriptions of a NOMS end-state diagram, NOMS design work and suggestions for service level agreements to be drawn up to guide the relations, including operational and budgetary matters, between probation boards and regional offender managers who had been appointed in the latter part of 2004.
I know that the probation service is concerned that, despite a number of negative responses to the consultation, the end state of NOMS is no different in essence from the proposed system that was withdrawn by the Home Office in July 2004, following consultation. That lack of transparency on the part of the
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Government has been self-defeating. As is mentioned in the summary of responses from the consultation exercise, there is support for NOMS in general. Much of the resulting unease and discord stems from people's disappointment that they were not fully consulted and their concerns not acted on, as well as general confusion about the lack of forthcoming answersconfusion which, as I said earlier, I fully understand.
I think that the Government would like to argue that the lack of a detailed blueprint gives key stakeholders the chance to influence the shape of NOMS at a crucial stage of its development. However, from what I have just related it is plain that that is not happening. Views are sought, but, it appears, not translated into any operational procedure or design. As a result, the view of the National Association of Probation Officers is that support for the concept of NOMS is now virtually non-existent, with key stakeholders, including the trade unions, among those who do not support it.
There is a feeling that NOMS, as currently constructed, will not work. The Home Affairs Committee, of which, as I have said, I am a member, criticised the lack of consultation in our report on the rehabilitation of prisoners. The report states:
"We welcome in principle the introduction of the National Offender Management Service, although we regret the lack of prior consultation and the failure to publish a comprehensive business case. These failures have undoubtedly created unnecessary difficulties in developing NOMS. We welcome recent signs that the Government has recognised these problems. A more collaborative approach with those working in the Prison and Probation Services will produce effective change more swiftly."
I noticed that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins), referred to the possibility of a new stakeholder forum during the previous Adjournment debate. I should like more information on that, as well as details of the outcome of the meetings so far of the NOMS joint consultative council. I am glad that my hon. Friend seems to have taken on board the fact that the initial lack of consultation and the speed of introduction have led to low morale among staff affected by NOMS. The object of inspiring commitment in staff has obviously not been achieved. I truly believe that unless stakeholders are consulted and their views taken on board, NOMS will not achieve its aims. Therefore, it is immensely important that the stakeholder forum should come into being and that the council should be used to maximum effect.
On 6 January 2004 the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), explained how the Government envisaged the service being provided at regional level. He said:
"where effective links can be forged and joined-up strategies developed. Those will include working with complementary services, including health, education, housing and employment."[Official Report, House of Commons, 6 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 172.]
However, local arrangements were omitted from the development of the organisational structures, and, subsequently, more than 90 per cent. of the boards either suggested alternative sub-regional structures or felt that the current 42 areas, or something similar, should be retained. None of the union responses was in favour of the regional structure. Most felt that the 42 areas, or something like that, should be retained.
One of my worries is the sheer size of each regional offender region. Liz Hill, the regional offender manager for my area is responsible for the north-west, while Carol Bernard is the ROM for the whole of Wales. ROMs will have major responsibility. By 200607, they will be responsible for holding the budget for probation and prisons in their regions, commissioning services for prisons and local probation boards, holding both prison and probation areas to account for their performance, improving performance by developing contestability and allowing alternative service providers to compete for work so that regions obtain the best value for money in managing offenders.
I do not understand how such a task can be managed at regional level. My area will include not only Merseyside, but Cheshire, Lancashire, Manchester and Cumbria, each with wide-ranging and varied offending problems. I fear that the regional structure will lead simply to increased bureaucracy, not better local results. What works in Bootle does not necessarily work in Crosby, and we must not lose sight of that in the re-organisation. I wish to receive reassurance that ROMs will work to make a strong, local focus possible within a regional structure, or else the structure will fail. As much commissioning as possible should be carried out locally rather than regionally to make delivery of contracts as relevant as possible to local people, their local problems and local issues.
Following consultation, the Government decided to retain the current structure of the probation service only for the time being. The fact that regional offender managers are working with the 42 existing local boards seems to be an example of the Government's improved stance towards consultation, and I firmly welcome it. I was initially pleased by my hon. Friend the Minister's response in July 2004 to concerns about the move to a regional structure. He seems to have acted on consultation responses that included reservations about regionalisation, especially the replacement of probation boards populated by members of the local community with regional boards, which, it was thought, would disrupt links and reduce local accountability. The focus was to be end-to-end management of offenders and contestability, which also gave cause for concern.
As well as the retention of probation boards, my hon. Friend explained that individual offender management would work at local level because it understands the importance of links at local level. I am keen to see how that will transpire in organisational reality. I am also aware that he emphasised that it was not a good idea to move to new regional boards for several reasons. However, regardless of his comments, it seems that NOMS is moving towards a more regional structure so, despite concerns expressed about such a move, plans have been postponed, not changed. Given that my hon.
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Friend the Minister still intends to move towards a regional structure and to replace the probation boards, those real worries have not been addressed.
Such a change will be driven centrally and result in a lack of local accountability, and I want local accountability. I do not want to undermine the good multi-agency work that is happening in my constituency and throughout Merseyside. Will my hon. Friend clarify whether NOMS will move towards a more regional structure and, if so, what will it look like? If regionalism is the goal, the Government need to assure parliamentarians and key stakeholders that that will make improvements in what already exists.
I should also like more information about the role and the powers of local offender managers. I am concerned that the Prison Service seems to have opted out of NOMS and, thus, that offender managers will not be able to affect the programmes in prison as they will have no authority over prison governors. Will my hon. Friend expand on the role and responsibilities of offender managers and explain how much influence they will have over the management of offenders in prison? I should be grateful if he told me whether he intends to remove local probation boards because it is important that they have power and resources to make links at local level. I, for one, am much in favour of local probation boards.
"we support measures to treat civil renewal as a matter of building confidence, resilience and social capital so that crime can be reduced and lower level nuisances can be dealt with by civil and social measures, including restorative measures, without recourse to the criminal justice process."
I am not necessarily opposed to the inclusion of a regional tier; there is definitely a place for a regional section within the proposals, for strategic purposes alone. However, the form of regionalism that NOMS seems to be moving towards would undermine the strengths of the current system, particularly the criminal justice partnerships that have been established in all our communities and are beginning to work well.
The criminal justice system has been moving towards a partnership approach to tackling crime and disorder since the introduction of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, in recognition of the fact that organisations and individuals can achieve more if they work together than if they work in isolation. The 1998 Act places a joint responsibility on local authorities and police to formulate and implement strategies to reduce crime and disorder in their area. They must do that in co-operation with a large number of organisations from the statutory, private and voluntary sectors. They must also consult the local community about their proposals.
Partnership groups make decisions on the setting of local priorities, targets, strategies and resources, and most have established a series of working groups to assess that process. Those working groups bring particular expertise to bear on a specific issue and make recommendations. Membership of the working groups will vary according to the issues that they address. They
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may contain a wider range of agencies than those represented in partnership groups, including agencies such as Victim Support and neighbourhood watch schemes. Vitally, they also involve members of the local community. Members of our local community are currently involved in criminal justice partnerships, which address problems caused by criminals operating locally. They are keen to ensure that such offenders are involved in restorative justice programmes that they have access to and have a voice in, and we cannot afford to lose that.
The probation boards operating in each of the 42 probation areas have boundaries that are contiguous with constabulary and court boundaries. That has encouraged the growth of local partnerships between a range of agencies and service providers covering the same area, from crime reduction and disorder partnerships and the local criminal justice boards to primary care trusts and local authorities. We are currently in a utopia of coterminous authorities, and we wreck that at our peril. The Carter report vision is for the continuation of such partnerships, and it highlights the need for improving shared information. I agree with that direction, as do the people I have spoken to and the responses I have seen in the summary of responses to the consultation.
My local probation service is outstanding; through my experiences with it, I am aware of the good practice that emerges through collaborationit has taken great pains to demonstrate that to me on more than one occasion. There is a lot of support for increasing the use of partnerships, although concerns have been raised about how that might happen in practice. In general, organisations appeared to be keen to work with each other, and to develop the work that has been done in recent years. The Probation Boards Association said that it would
"welcome the increased use of the voluntary/not-for-profit sector in dealing with the needs of offenders and communities. These partnerships not only add to the capacity of probation boards to deliver services but play an important part in community engagement and awareness-raising."
The second part of "National Offender Management ServiceNext Steps" summarises the response to the second consultation, which focused on the preferred organisational design of the new service. Despite the support that there is for increased partnership working, many respondents made it clear that they felt that there was no need for radical structural changes, and that the required changes in delivery could be brought about without so much upheaval to staffstaff who have been involved in the process of change for many years. That process is not conducive to good, efficient working, or the improvement of morale.
I secured a debate in Westminster Hall on this topic three weeks ago and have had a great deal of feedback from probation officers in the service. Does my hon. Friend agree, from knowledge of her research and contacts, that the probation service feels uneasy about the relationship of the regional structure and the fact that it will just have contractual, not supervisory, relationships with suppliers? Does she regretas the
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probation service doesthat the service in its current form, which was set up almost 100 years ago by the Probation of Offenders Act 1907, seems unlikely to survive in the way that was envisaged just some years ago? Will not the centenary be a redundant date?
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : I am delighted to see my hon. Friend in the Chamber and I take this opportunity to congratulate him on securing the first debate on the subject. I read the response to that debate with a great deal of sadness and noted that many of his concerns were not adequately addressed. I concur with his views.
The local probation boards and the probation facilities feel disfranchised from the process of restructuring the probation services and are yet to be convinced that the models on offer will do anything to enhance the effectiveness of their role in relation to prisoners.
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): I am listening to the hon. Lady's speech carefully and agree with a lot of what she says. There is an element of déjà vu about this whole debate. I, too, was dissatisfied with the Minister's responses to the last debate, and I asked him to reply to all Members present in writing, but I had not yet had a letter from him until he handed me today a copy of a letter dated 24 March. To the best of my knowledge, it has not yet arrived in my office, and even it does not fully answer all the questions raised in the debate. There have been answers subsequent to the debate and publication of the Hansard report of it, but the hon. Lady may, like me, not have had the advantage of seeing even that inadequate letter.
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : NOMS, the probation service and prisons are not on many parliamentarians' list of hot topics, but they are certainly on mine. A discrete number of colleagues in the House is interested in this matter, and we will not let it rest. We know that there are significant consequences to changing the probation and prison services. I want to ensure that any changes deliver a better service, and I will not stop until I have seen evidence of that and probation boards tell me that what is going to happen is better. Those people have the experience, and I am not going to argue with them because that experience has been gained over a long period, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) just said.
Many respondents to the consultation pointed out that existing local relationships, both formal and informal, were important in ensuring successful management. As I said earlier, and as I intend to repeat, I want local people working with the crime and disorder partnerships, the probation boards, the youth offender teams and the youth justice boards to ensure that there is local accountability. That matters immensely to me.
One of the strongest messages coming from the consultation was concern about regional rather than local delivery structures. Numerous respondents pointed out how integral local structures and partnerships were to criminal justice services, and it was felt that the NOMS design would reduce that. The NOMS design does nothing to enhance those organisations that were set up as a result of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and runs counter to many of the measures introduced under that Act that focused on local involvement and local agency working.
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Local arrangements supported by local people are necessary to ensure that work with offenders can be carried out effectively and in partnership with the range of other agencies which provide services to offenders. Furthermore, co-operation between locally managed probation services, the police and courts has been vital to crime reduction and the running of youth justice teams, which have been enabled by coterminous boundaries.
I am extremely impressed with the work on Merseyside through multi-agency public protection arrangements, and there are currently interagency arrangements to tackle serious crime. Those arrangements bring together all the relevant agencies and organisations to share information on the minority of offenders who cause the most concernthat is, sexual or violent offenders.
Until the mid to late 1990s, joined-up work was patchy. Agencies tended to work in isolation and guard their information on offenders, often managed in isolated pockets of time. That would mean one agency closing a file, with another opening a new one. Now, there is file sharing, and things are much better. A different approach prevails, and we have seen good examples of it in Liverpool. One of the basic principles of sharing such information is illustrated by the Liverpool intensive supervision monitoring scheme, whereby the police and probation officers have access to each others' computer files. Three levels of seriousness have been introduced to assist the process. Level 3 is the most serious and is reserved for the critical few who pose a risk to the community that requires input from a range of agencies. Senior managers come together locally to allocate significant resources to manage such individuals.
The scheme has been successful, as the 200304 statistics indicate. Some 67 individuals were subject to a level 3 multi-agency protection panel, and only two were subsequently charged with a new serious offence. In areas such as Bootle, that meant a massive reduction in some drug-related crime; and by massive I mean 80 per cent. The agents involved in the exercisethey are involved to this daysay that that is the result of multi-agency working and local solutions to local problems.
It is worth giving a real example. AA, who is just 20, has been in trouble with the law all his life and is serving a long prison sentence for violent muggings on trains. He has a history of psychological problems, made worse by drink and drug abuse. He has completed his intensive offending behaviour programme, acquired some educational qualifications during his prison sentence and faced up to the effects of his behaviour on his victims. He will soon be released on licence to complete his prison sentence under supervision in the community, which I applaud.
A MAPPA meeting will therefore be called to ensure that all the supervision arrangements are in place, to monitor his progress. At such meetings, all agencies share information, assess the risk and agree actions to be taken by the various agency representatives. In AA's case, the agencies involved will work together, as they understand that although good use is being made of custody time, he must be supported in the community.
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Merseyside has formed a strategic management board made up of the relevant senior agency representatives, as well as the prison and probation services and the police. The board includes representatives of Support After Murder and ManslaughterSAMMthe director of social services, the area manager of the St. Helens youth offending team and the deputy director of nursing for Mersey Care NHS Trust, to name but a few. Those people will be lost in the regional structure, but we cannot afford to lose them. They must stay in place.
The head of St. Helens youth offending services has found that the work has informed his involvement with the strategic management board and feels that it has helped his understanding of issues involving victims of crime and the wider community. Where is there a place for such people in the current organisational structures for ROMs? I cannot see it. Does that mean that their role disappears, or does it mean that they are pulled into the centre of NOMS, a long way from Merseyside and the problems that my constituents experience.
"research has shown that a collaborative approach in addressing the issues surrounding serious offenders is essential to prevent re-offending re-occurring . . . public protection is dependant upon thorough co-ordination by all the key agencies."
I have laboured the point about localisation of the structure long enough and should turn to contestability. The Minister wants to place contestability at the heart of NOMS to ensure the best services. In an interview with NOMS Update magazine in January, Christine Knott explained that ROMs were already forging links with the key people in their regions and would quickly begin working to separate offender management from interventions. That will mean that existing providers will compete with private and voluntary sector providers to supply interventions in the community, thus leading to secrecy rather than information sharing. If agencies have to compete for work, they will develop their own strategies and ways of preparing and pricing programmes. There will not be the sharing of best practice between providers that we have now. I have seen that kind of sharing in action; providers say, "What is working with you? This is working with us." If they all have to contract for work, there will be no sharing of good practice. People will keep good practice to themselves in the hope that they can win further contracts, and I am deeply opposed to that.
David Taylor : My hon. Friend has moved on, at least in part, from effectiveness to cost. Is she concerned, as I am, that the NOMS overhead associated with producing, considering and monitoring myriad contracts with public, private and voluntary sector providers will itself be a very substantial cost? Perhaps we may judge by early experiences in the related area of hostels facilities and management contracts. The experience there, according to people who have e-mailed me, is that the situation
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : I agree absolutely; that is my experience. We have seen repeated examples of that when we have privatised a service. Privatisation may provide a service at less cost, but that does not mean it is more effective. We cannot overestimate the sophistication of the programmes developed to address the criminal habits of some individuals. The programmes have to be specifically tailored for each individual at great expense to the taxpayers. That is as a result of the criminals' action in the first place. The result is further expense to try to curtail and manage their behaviour in future. Experts currently put these programmes together, and they work.
A regional structure will incur greater costs, and those will have to be shared by each of the probation services, so we will get increasing costs and supervision. I want to know how that translates to the bottom line in terms of improved delivery. Quite frankly, I do not want any more managers in the system; I want more people out on the streets working with offenders.
Many probation staff feel clearly threatened by the proposal to split the purchaser-provider functions, as do the trade unions. Nearly 60 per cent. of union responses were strongly against the proposal. One union said that the split would
"run counter to Patrick Carter's original aim of 'breaking down the silos of the services' and will have a negative impact on staff and on the recruitment of staff, as well as on the principles of the service."
The move towards contestability seems to go against the principle suggested in the Carter report. The proposals appear not to provide any structural integration of the probation and prison services; rather, they keep them separate and signal the intention of splitting the probation service in two.
Mrs. Gillan : The hon. Lady has mentioned the movement towards contestability. It is no longer a movement, because the first cluster of prisons has already been put out for competition; contestability is with us before we have even had any Bills and before NOMS has had sufficient scrutiny in this House, let alone among the unions and other interested parties.
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : Yes, I am aware of that. A member of my staff is currently with some of the probation boards and services across the UK, and I asked about some of those services. I know that some are shaping up to be put out, but I did not realise some of them had gone out.
As hon. Members know, I am prolific in asking parliamentary questions, having asked nearly 2,000. I give the Minister good notice of the fact that I shall be putting pen to paper, and I will expect to find out exactly what is what in this area. That will be good news for the Minister for after the next election, one hopes.
I want to bring my remarks to a close. I apologise for the length of my speech, but I wanted to put these matters, which I feel so strongly about, on the record. I am accountable to the people I serve in my constituency,
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and I am proud to be so. This is an essential part of my job. Many of us do not like to think of prisoners coming back into the community and reoffending. I have been trying my damnedest to limit that eventuality in my community. That is why I have such a great interest in the subject, and I do not intend to relinquish that interest.
"The purpose of the National Offender Management Service, which is established in today's Bill, is to dismantle the Probation Service and introduce privatisation in order to drive down costs. This will be done through reducing terms and conditions of staff."
As I have mentioned, one of the most effective methods of working in the probation service of late has been the multi-agency approach. I argued that that would be undermined if the boundaries of the probation service were changed. It will be more difficult to maintain links as their focuses will vary. However, multi-agency working, which we have been moving towards, faces a greater threat from the decision to move towards contestability through the separation of purchaser and provider functions. As one commentator noted:
"There is a risk that this approach could be counterproductive if NOMS is to succeed in delivering end-to-end management of offenders that will rely upon co-operation between service providers from all sectors."
There is much evidence to support the view that dislocating the work of offender management and interventions would adversely affect the provision of an integrated, coherent and effective service to offenders.
I have said enough. My primary concern is that the NOMS service will be managed regionally. The dimension of locality seems to be missing. I have looked at the organisational structuresI am something of an expert in thoseand cannot find anything that suggests that local providers will be able to determine what best suits local needs. That is what is crucial. Moreover, our probation boards are populated by local people who are accountable to local people and take great pride in the work that they do. We must not prejudice the involvement of local people in the action of the probation boardsthat is also crucial.
I am implacably opposed to contestability. At the moment it is about reducing cost and not necessarily improving the effectiveness of services. We cannot do that. We must continue with the good work established with a number of agencies since the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 was introduced, which is commendable. We have worked hard to involve local people in the management of local offenders, and we have to continue to do that. I cannot see NOMS, as constituted, enabling that process of local accountability one jot. I look forward to the reassuring words that I hope to get from my hon. Friend the Minister at the end of the debate, which will address not only my concerns but those of my
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hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire and of the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), as expressed in recent debates. We must have overt and coherent answers to our concerns. If we do not, I have a long and interesting record of writing parliamentary questions about the matter.
Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), who has spoken with enormous passion. Her anger and commitment have been made clear in her remarks. She need not apologise for speaking at length, because I have to say that I agreed with every single word. I have learnt a great deal. She is right to say that, cross-party, we all wanted to take a sensible way forward from the Carter review. We need one organisation to look at the whole criminal sentence process; many of us were concerned about the different parts of the organisation. When the National Offender Management Service was being talked about as a result of Carter, there was a sense that quite a bit of consensus could be achieved. As we know, a lot of the good will was lost over the birth of NOMS. There is no point in going over the history, but NOMS certainly did not start out well because of how it was managed.
However, I sign up to the underlying objectives and aims that people are trying to achieve. The hon. Member for Crosby was right to talk about the problems experienced after the launch, and about the lack of consultation. I was interested to hear her comments about the current stakeholder forum, and I hope that that represents a more constructive approach. It is a pity that it has come so late; we could have achieved much more in a different way if it had been there before. Never mind; it is there now, and let us hope that it is a building block for a better way forward.
The hon. Member for Crosby was right to look harshly at some of the issues of structure. Structure is critical; it is important that we get the right level. I was taken by her illustrations of the fact that what works in Bootle may not work in Crosby. We all know about that principle from our experiences in different parts of the country. We have to have a strong local focus, and one way to achieve that is for a set of individuals to work in their communities at making people aware, particularly of work on probation.
That is why the probation boards have been so helpful in building those links. I see the structure issuewhether there should be organisations in different regionsand the probation board issue as one. My experience of meeting probation boards, such as the one serving my area in Hampshire and Winchester, is that good chief executives and individuals on them will go out and be advocates. They will, if you like, sell the service of probationand by golly it needs selling. It needs explaining, and it needs businesses and communities to be signed up to the work that is taking place. The person running the probation service in my area, and the chairman of the board, have done excellent work in talking to local newspapers, writing articles, holding receptions in their offices, bringing businesses in and persuading the community that they should be
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taking individuals who are part of community service. They have been the advocates. However, I have to say that we would not have gone to their receptions or events unless they had been locally focused and we had been on first-name terms with some of those individuals who, we felt, were embedded and knew about the community. The hon. Lady was absolutely right to raise that issue.
She was also right to raise concerns about contestabilityhorrible word. I am not ideologically opposed to the private sector being involved in running public services. I have never bought into the argument of public good, private bad. I have always been very open minded about how things should work. However, in some areas the private sector is not necessarily appropriate; sometimes, deciding whether to bring in the private sector is very complex. I have concerns about that, particularly in relation to prisons; the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) is right to say that the process starts with prisons.
I am uneasy about the assumption that a failing prison may be ripe for contestability and for a private company to come in. Surely we should examine some of the reasons why prisons are struggling in the first place and the assumption that their problems can be solved by a different organisational structure. Such problems cannot always be solved in that way. Many prisons are failing because of issues of funding, location, the age of the buildings and pressures of overcrowdingreasons that have very little to do with management and the individuals running through.
I am also concerned about how things are being done, given the need for a level playing field. I have one specific question for the Minister. There appear to be different offender management targets in different prisons. I am told that public-sector prisons have the target of keeping overcrowding to under 24 per cent. However, the target for overcrowding in contracted prisons is 34 per cent. That seems bizarre; there are unlevel playing fields for contracted and publicly-run prisons when it comes to targeting. Will the Minister respond, or write to me, on that? That would be helpful. If we have unlevel playing fields on contestability, there will obviously be some concerns.
I conclude with some thoughts about why it is so important to get matters right, and on the challenge for those working in probation and in the prisons. The hon. Member for Crosby said it may be that not all politicians want to talk about that. My party will talk about it in the next four weeks, during the general election campaign, although there is a risk in doing so. The other parties are already distributing leaflets misquoting things that I have said about whether prison works but I shall keep on talking about prison, and about the importance of getting this right, because if we are serious about tackling crime, one obvious way of reducing the number of criminal offences is to reduce the number of people who leave prison and reoffend.
I need not bore those in this Chamber, who are all familiar with them, with the statistics: more than 50 per cent. of prisonersand more than 70 per cent. of 18 to 21-year-oldswho leave prison reoffend. Prison is expensive, and we should get better value for money than reoffending rates such as that. Probation and prison working together can play a key role in tackling that reoffending rate, and they need to work better to
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enable individuals who leave prison to access housing and probation. Multi-agencies need to have a role in that too. The system needs to work better so that prisoners on probation and out in the community doing community service have good access to drug rehabilitation and alcohol programmes; we know that they are effective.
Tackling the problem of education and training is critical to the process. Let me end with an anecdote that has troubled me enormously. I met a prisoner who was due for release and congratulated her on her release, but she said that she did not want to be released. When I asked why, she said, "Because I am in the middle of a hairdressing course and I want to continue it. I am going to be released in three weeks' time and the course in prison will finish in about four months. I have tried everywhere to be able to continue the course outside prison, and I cannot, so I would much rather stay here to continue the course, to get the qualification and to become a hairdresser and get a job."
The situation is nonsensical. It highlights that it is essential to bring together probation, prison and all the agencies if we are to tackle that sort of problem and all the others that go with integration. I congratulate the hon. Member for Crosby on having raised the issue and I hope that the Minister will give us satisfactory responses. It is important, it is critical; it is a really big issue that needs to be tackled. The intentions behind NOMS were good, but it has gone off the rails. There could be good will across all parties to get it back on track.
David Taylor : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the ways of getting back on the railsthe present prisons Minister is the best we have had in the past eight yearswould be for NOMS to publish a detailed business plan that can be scrutinised, debated and measured against standards that people will accept as being those of a good public sector organisation?
I am informed that the NOMS business plan has just been published and put on the Home Office website, although it appears not to have been circulated to probation boards and chief officers. The Minister may be able to confirm that; it was mentioned in a briefing note that I received a couple of days ago. If that is the case, it is a shame that those on the front line have not received it. On the other hand, they can access the website. At least the information is available. If it has not been put across in the right way, that is another example of how this issue is not handled as well as it might be. We have an opportunity to get it right. We are a long way from doing so, but the will is there to make it work in future.
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): There is a huge element of déjà vu about our debate, but I am delighted that the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) has given us another opportunity to beard the Minister in this den of Westminster Hall. I hope that he will be left with a lot more time to answer today's debate, as we have a lot more questions and many are hanging over from previous debates.
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I congratulate the hon. Member for Crosby on her introduction to the debate. I understand that the Minister is married to a lady from Crosby. I hope that that will soften him up for his replies to the debateand I hope that the hon. Lady will have more success in getting replies out of the Minister than did other Members in this Chamber on previous occasions.
I identify strongly with the story told by the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten). Unfortunately, the Liberal Democrats do not have much continuity in dealing with the subject; the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) was speaking on prisons in the previous Westminster Hall debate. It would be nice to see consistency, with the same people following the subject through.
I, too, have spoken to many prisoners and discovered that the way in which they are prepared for release is so inadequate that they would rather stay inside. Recidivism is one thing, but it borders on the ridiculous that people can be so frightened of re-entering society that they would prefer to lose their liberty. That is when probation officers and prison officers come to the fore. They are the very people, the experts, needed to deliver a reduction in reoffending and to help ex-prisoners to take a proper role in societya role in which they can contribute by working and paying tax rather than being a net drain on society. We all share that view.
To a certain extent, the Carter principles, the rebalancing of sentencing and a greater congruence between the work of the Prison Service and the probation service to help reduce reoffending and to protect the public is something to which we all subscribe. I have no doubt about that. Nevertheless, however pleasant, charming and helpful the Minister is, I am afraid that we seem to be descending into a quagmire. People do not know what is going on, and communications are exceedingly poor.
I understand that a group or cluster of prisons has already been put out to competition under the National Offender Management Service, but the Bill has gone nowhere. I was today handed a letter in reply to the debate that was instigated the other day by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor). That letter confirms that the first competition has gone ahead, but the points that I raised on the Bill were not dealt with, other than the Minister stating:
That was allegedly written on 24 March; yet on 6 April, today, the Bill has little likelihood of success. I hope that the Minister is not going to pick a horse on the Grand National on Saturday; I am not sure that I would trust his judgment. It was an open secret: everyone knew that the Bill would go nowhereeveryone except the Minister, who seemed always to stand up for it. I have heard rumours that the Bill will be redraftedI am sure it willyet NOMS is rolling on apace without legislative scrutiny, and the Minister has not consulted those involved in the work or Members of the House. Despite that, the change affects every constituency.
The business plan is not an impressive document. It is one of the thinnest business plans that I have seen for a long time. I, too, know about business and
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management. The business plan runs to five pages. The corporate plan is a little longer, but several of its pages show pictures of the members of the NOMS executive board. I thought that legislation had to be scrutinised by the House before the changes took place, but the plan mentions April 2005. I am not sure when it was prepared, but it must have been obvious that the Bill would not be introduced or debated. We question how it was introduced and how it is being managed by the Home Office. I have no doubt that there is general confusion and chaos, and that communications are poor.
David Taylor : I shall dash back to my office to look at the website and examine the business plan to which the hon. Lady refers. What matters is quality, not length, but I have seen what appear to be more substantial business plans for village halls. We are talking about a major public service that obviously needs billions of pounds of public money, and the trauma of change is envisaged. Condensing that to five sides of A4 paper means that it is unlikely to have been done well.
Mrs. Gillan : It is hard to glean much detail from it, but it has just appeared on the Home Office website and one must ask to whom it has been sent because the chief probation officers have not yet received it. I am not sure what the distribution process is for information, but while we are talking about communications from the Home Office, I note that NOMS officials have acknowledged that communications have been poor. I understand that the NOMS updates that are circulated to all staff have also dried up. Will the Minister confirm that NOMS updates have not been issued to staff recently and that they have been left in the dark on a permanent basis at a time of unprecedented change? Goodness only knows. I used to work for Arthur Young when it merged with Ernst and Whinney, and became Ernst and Young, and we had daily communications. In a major upheaval in a major organisation, the staff must be spoken to, informed and consulted, not kept in the dark. At a time such as this, during a general election, the updates should not be allowed to dry up.
I question the way in which the whole process is being managed. Our prison and probation services are not running along nicely. Indeed, they are in crisis in many areas: we still have gross overcrowding in some areas; the prison system is 24 per cent. overcrowded, as confirmed by Anne Owers; and there are at least two self-inflicted deaths a week. Last year, prison staff had to resuscitate 228 prisonersthat is 228 lives that were saved by the people who are not being consulted about the way in which their jobs are being changedand there were almost 18,000 incidents of self-harm in our prisons. We are talking about the most vulnerable people in our society, who are at the mercy of the state, and about the people who provide this service to our society.
There are still many questions, and I am disappointed in the response so far as this should not be a contentious matter. Members of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties have pressed the Minister for an answer, but answers came there none. There is silence on so much about the way in which NOMS has been put forward.
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Throughout this process, I have been briefed by the unions and their representatives, and I have been pleased to do business with them as they have conducted themselves in a first-class fashion. They have sought not to make political mileage but to get their organisations' voices heard by the Labour Government. I am grateful for the fair way in which they have briefed me.
The National Association of Probation Officers believes that there are still huge gaps and unanswered questions, and that the vision that the Minister has so often articulated about the statement of purpose for the Prison Service and the aims of the probation service is silent on the objective of rehabilitating those who have offended. It is an alarming indictment that it is silent on core values and principles. It is silent on achieving diversity and treating people with humanity, and on supporting the staff. Believe me, the staff do not feel supported. It is silent on the principles of openness and transparency, on the need for problem-solving approaches and on the need for an approach based on partnership and collaboration. That is a fundamental criticism of the process, which is reflected in the way in which the hon. Member for Crosby introduced the debate.
I do not want to speak for too long, as I want to leave the Minister plenty of time to respond, but I am worried. My having covered this brief for the past year and having spoken to so many people, it is natural that documents should be sent to me from time to time, and I need some explanation from the Minister about some of them.
There is no doubt that this is a time of unprecedented change with the major sentencing reforms in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 being introduced this week, on 4 April. The challenges from the changes to the courts and the criminal justice service, particularly the probation service, are great, and our services need stability and support if they are to achieve the aims that the Minister and the Home Office have set out for them. However, at the same time, we have NOMS going on.
The business plan for the national probation service is obviously assessed internally within the Home Office. I have been passed something called annex C which is a summary risk register for 200506. I think that I understand the document, but I would like the Minister to answer some questions about it.
"Contributing to the building of an excellent National Offender Management Service with the separation of Offender Management from Interventions: During 200506 areas will be expected to reorganise themselves to establish a clear operational division between offender management and interventions."
The risks and risk descriptions are then laid out, accompanied by a traffic-light system. One obviously, therefore, looks at the ones marked in red. I find there that there is a medium likelihood, with a high impact, and a risk rating assessment which is right up the register, that a
We are talking about a system for managing offenders. They are vulnerable people and people who, if they are not properly contained, looked after, managed and seen through the processas the Minister likes to call itof offender management, may put other people at risk. If this document says that even the basic communication system is not going to work, I am worried. Will the Minister comment on that?
If all that is the case, everything that has ever been said by the Opposition on this area is coming home to roost; the prison and probation service have been tipped into a position in which risks are being run. The Minister should take the 25 minutes available not only to respond to the points raised by the hon. Member for Crosby, but to talk us through those risk assessments. I am sure that they will be easy for him to dismiss. He said, "Well it might happen; that is how we look at the risks". However, we deserve an answer from the Minister, even this close to a general election, when the ratings against the risk factors that I have identified in the debate are "very high".
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Our prison and probation services are very good. I am proud of them, and they deserve first-class treatment for the first-class job that they try to do. As I said, they do not deserve the current chaos and uncertainty, and I look to the Minister to answer today and not to write to me before the election.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins) : I happily promise the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) that I will not write to her again before the general election, if that will satisfy her. I also hope that I will be able to answer the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) has asked this afternoon as well as those asked by other hon. Members.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising the issue. She rightly described herself as a persistent and prolific offender when it comes to parliamentary questions and debates and raising issues of importance to her and her constituents. As she said at the end of her speech, that is the job of a constituency Member of Parliament. She does that job assiduously, which is greatly to her credit, and I firmly hope that that is recognised in the next few weeks. I am sure that it will be.
My hon. Friend spoke with passion and said that she would be back. I am grateful for that, because we are a year into what we always said was a five-year programme of development of the National Offender Management Service. It was never a service that could be pulled out of a hat or developed in five minutes. It is a complex arrangement that will take time to deliver and to develop properly. In the end, it will succeed only with the collaboration of those people who work at the sharp end of the service. I shall return to that theme later.
David Taylor : Will the Minister talk at some point about the existence or absence of a detailed business plan? We are 20 per cent. of the way into the five-year programme. Is he sure that staff have been properly informed at all stages, so that the fog of uncertainty has been lifted and the doubts and concerns that they naturally have as professionals working in an established service have been allayed? Is he sure that that aspect of the reorganisation of the service has been given proper attention and priority?
Paul Goggins : I am very pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) in the Chamber again today. Indeed, he secured the previous debate on this subject. He has always participated in these debates, to which I pay tribute.
I should ensure that hon. Members do not confuse the business plan with the business case, which has frequently been requested and which, as I confirmed in the previous debate, is currently the subject of a Freedom of Information Act application. We will reconsider our refusal to publish the full business case if we accept that application, but in the meantime we have the business plan, which any public service is expected to provide, for the immediate period ahead. That is the document to which we are referring. I will talk about that issue later in more detail.
I have never hidden the fact that there has been a need to improve communication with the work force to ensure that they are engaged and involved in the
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development of the organisation and its work. That is and remains my vision for the development of NOMS. We have taken steps to ensure that communication is improved. I will also talk about that later.
Do I believe that staff now understand everything and feel confident that their positions in the organisation are secure? I fully accept that many members of staff do not feel like that, which is regrettable. It therefore remains an urgent task for Ministers and other senior officials to ensure that that dialogue is intensified and developed, because no one has anything to fear from the development of the service. Professionals and everyone else who is engaged in the system have everything to gain from the more coherent system that will be developed through the service.
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) stated that the five-page business plan had not been distributed to our chairmen and chief executives. The chairmen, in the inception of NOMS, were excluded from discussions and I know that there has been an attempt to address the omission, but can the Minister confirm that the business plan and the accompanying corporate plan have been distributed to the chief executive of the probation authorities and the chairmen and that they received them before we did?
Paul Goggins : I cannot confirm that a specific copy has been sent personally to each of the people my hon. Friend mentions. There is no secret about the documents. They have been published on the website and they are there for people to see. If my hon. Friend suggests that people in those key positions in the local organisations do not routinely look at the Home Office website and need their attention to be drawn to this, that is worth considering. I will happily go back and check whether direct communications were made. If they have not been I will make sure that they are. My hon. Friend is entirely right.
Paul Goggins : I will, although several hon. Members complained that I did not respond adequately to questions last time. I always give way in debates because it is important to exchange views. But if hon. Members want their questions to be answered they will have to give me a little time to complete my remarks.
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : The Minister says that it is incumbent on chairmen and chief executives to check the website. That is a bit like me saying to my constituents, "If you want an answer to a problem, go to my website." That is not acceptable. These people are pivotal in the delivery of services. They ought to be treated as such and receive the correspondence that is pertinent to their job. I must receive assurances that that will be the case. I am exceptionally busy and I do not check my website every day. I do not expect them to have to check a document that is available to the general public to find out information that is directly pertinent to them and the operation of their service.
Paul Goggins : I do not wish to go down a blind alley here. I was simply making the point that I would expect
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those people to have seen the business plan. My hon. Friend is quite right: we should ensure that they have seen them for certain. I will check that they have.
Paul Goggins : I will be happy to receive the hon. Lady's assistance, but my hon. Friend has this assurance: I am not a Minister who will take a punt on whether something has happened, even if it probably has, if I do not know for certain. I always check things thoroughly. If it has not happened, it will happen.
Mrs. Gillan : A probation board's briefing was emailed to me yesterday. It says that the business plan and the NOMS corporate plan have just appeared on the Home Office website. To whom has it been sent? It was not sent, apparently, to probation chief officers or boards. I was told that in direct briefing from a probation board. The Minister can take it that it has not been sent to them. It does not surprise me because there is so much in these documents that needs to be answered. The Minister will understand that they will be concerned about all the efficiency savings, for example, that are laid out to be achieved in these documents.
Paul Goggins : Nothing in the business plans will come as a surprise to any of the chief officers engaged in the delivery of the services. I make the point again: I will check and if they have not received the plan already, they will. I will be in touch with my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby to let her know the outcome.
I must press on as time is receding very rapidly. Our correctional services have more investment going in now than ever before. Almost £4 billion is going into our prison and probation services. They are performing better than ever. There is no question about that. But, as has emerged from the debate, we still need to do more, not least in reducing rates of reoffending. It is that determination to reduce rates of reoffending that lies at the heart of the offender management service reforms.
I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend declare openly that she shared the vision for NOMS. She rightly pointed out that she and the Home Affairs Committee had welcomed the introduction of NOMS. There is no disagreement between us there. I hope that I will be able to offer her some reassurance on some of her detailed points about organisational structure and so on. Our determination is threefold. I have made these points before, but I need to make them again. First, we need to rebalance the system. My hon. Friend studies these things carefully and she knows that far too many people are still in the wrong part of the criminal justice system. Too many are in prison on short-term sentences rather than on robust community sentences, and too many have the support and supervision of probation officers when they should have been dealt with through a fine. We are determined to reinvigorate the fine and to ensure that community sentences are properly developed and robust and that there are adequate and proper places in prison for the serious and dangerous offenders who need to be there. The need to rebalance the system is absolutely fundamental.
Secondly, we need to introduce a proper system of offender management. In his report, Patrick Carter always referred to the two silos of prison and probation.
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No matter how well those services perform, we can no longer have a system that is divided in that way. We need individual offender managers who are accountable to individual offenders and responsible for their sentence plans. That is particularly important nowif it was not beforefollowing the introduction on Monday of the new sentencing framework. Under that framework, a determinate prisoner, for example, will spend the first part of their sentence in prison and the whole of the second part of their sentence after they have left prison under community supervision. We shall have one sentence, in two parts, properly managed by one offender manager. That gives us real hope that we can do far more to join up the systems.
The story that the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) told was horrific. Somebody was making progress because of a hairdressing course, but they were unable to see that progress sustained beyond the prison gates. Whether we are talking about hairdressing training, education, drug treatment, mental health support, employment or accommodation, provisions must be followed through coherently in one system. That is why I am so passionate about the need to introduce offender management right through the system.
The third element is contestability. We need to drive out more value for the huge amounts of investment that we are making. That is not privatisation or old-fashioned market testing, which seeks to cut the costs of our services. We have made guarantees, not least in relation to the contestability process for the three prisons on the Isle of Sheppey, that we are not looking for cost reductions. We are looking for added value and a bigger impact on reducing rates of reoffending.
I want the private sector, the voluntary sector and the not-for-profit sector to deepen the partnership that they already have with our Prison Service and probation service. I was delighted to meet people from the Pitstop project in Calderdale in a room nearby, and I hope that hon. Members present also had the opportunity to do so. My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) drew my attention to that voluntary organisation, which works to prevent young people from getting involved in crime in the first place. I want the correctional services to embrace such organisations, to bring them on side and to see them as part and parcel of the system. That is what contestability is, and that organisation, like any voluntary organisation or private company, should have the chance to bid for the work.
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : I have looked at what organisational structures and schematics exist for NOMS. The Minister has asserted that there will be continuous management of individuals' rehabilitation programmes inside and outside prison, but nothing in the current structure demonstrates that. On the contrary, there is one line saying that prison services will be paid for and one saying that probation services will be paid for; there is no box that draws the two together. Will the Minister confirm that one person will be responsible for an individual and will dictate their rehabilitative programme, whether they are in prison or
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community service? At the moment, the organisational structure does not show that; it shows two different people managing the individual in two different worlds.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Edward O'Hara): Order. Before the Minister responds to that intervention, let me say that I have been taking advice about the request by the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) to speak a second time in the debate; I can find no precedent for that. She seems to have been following my advice to achieve her purpose through interventions, and I advise her to continue to do so. It is, of course, for the Minister to determine whether he has time to take all her interventions.
Paul Goggins : As I explained, I always try to take interventions, so that we can have a genuine exchange. I can confirm to my hon. Friend that one, named, individual offender manager will be responsible for the whole sentence plan. Whether that plan is in prison, in the community, or partly in each, it will be for the individual offender manager to manage the whole plan, and to have a real input into its various elements.
An issue arises about where a prison governor's responsibility starts and ends. The governor is responsible for good order and discipline in the prison, as we should expect, and will continue to exercise that authority, but the system will not, as it is now, be composed of two distinct and unrelated parts. The offender manager will determine the plan and see it through and will be accountable for it and its impact. I hope that that gives greater clarity.
Paul Goggins : I should just like to mention the Isle of Sheppey, and the announcement that we made there a couple of weeks ago, because the hon. Lady asked me about that. She referred to our taking the action in question without a Bill. We are handling the contestability process in relation to the three prisons on the Isle of Sheppey within existing legislation.
The staff on Sheppey, entering upon the process, can do so in the knowledge that they have all the protection of the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 and all the additional protections that arise from the code designed to tackle the two-tier work force, so that, for example, a bidder cannot win the contract simply by undercutting on wages. There will have to be a level playing field.
The staff can, also, begin in the knowledge that the public sector prison service has a fine and growing reputation. There is nothing to fear for anyone who works in the Prison Service in those three prisons from what is being done; what we stand to gain is added value for the work that they do.
Mrs. Gillan : I hope that the Minister is not implying that after the Bill on NOMS is passed the staff would not have the protection of TUPE. According to the spirit, if not the essence, of these things, I appreciate that the Minister does not need the legislation, but to put things out so precipitately is not correct.
I should like to take the Minister back to what he was saying; he said that an individual will be responsible for the sentence plan and management of an offender and
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will be accountable. How can someone be held accountable when a prisoner is moved from London to another part of the country, and then to another and another, as happens now? Does the Minister say that there will be no churningno movement of prisoners across the country?
Paul Goggins : The hon. Lady knows, because we have debated the subject in the past, that one of my hopesmy firm expectationsfrom the development of the offender management service, is that we shall increase the number of prisoners who are closer to home, particularly in preparation for release. She and I knowwe all knowthat good resettlement and rehabilitation are best achieved in close collaboration with the agencies in the community that can support a sentence plan beyond prison. I therefore expect that the numbers she is concerned about will reduce, and it is important that they should. The hon. Lady shakes her head, although I do not know what evidence she has to support her view. My aspiration is clear, and I believe that the increasing local and regional focus, to which I shall come in a second, will help us.
Paul Goggins : I shall happily do that; I am glad that the hon. Gentleman reminded me. It is in the notes and I hope that I should have reached it anyway. The reason for the differential is that most private sector prisons are more modern and are in a better position to cope with the pressures of overcrowding. However, of course none of us delights in an overcrowded prison system.
We have recently opened up a slight capacity gap, because fewer people are in prison today than a year agoincluding far fewer womenwhich is a good sign that we are achieving a rebalanced system. I am pleased that because of that we have recently been able to take out some places from the more overcrowded prisons, and reduce overcrowding. I take that issue very seriously, but the reason for the differential is that private prisons tend to be more modern and can more easily deal with it.
Let me move on and address some of the urgent questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby asked. We need to improve communication with staff and unions on the development of NOMS, especially in the early months. We have existing negotiating machinery between staff and the employersthe Prison Service and local probation boards. We also now have the national joint council, where trade unions can meet senior NOMS officials. We are seeking to develop a stakeholder forum in which representatives of all the organisations and agencies involved in NOMS can participate, ask questions, and debate issues with senior officials and Ministers so that we can get the benefit of their advice. The initial intention was to do that through the NOMS board. On reflection, I think it would be better to keep operational issues with the senior executive board within NOMS, but also to have a wider group of stakeholders so that we can have the benefit of their advice and wisdom.
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I hope that our fourfold approach will sustain better communications in future. In terms of organisational development, the 10 regional offender managers are now in place. My hon. Friend referred to there being a lack of consultation. Of course we could always consult more, but the fact is that we have had two formal consultations on NOMS, one on the original report by Patrick Carter, and another on the proposal for organisational change, which took place about a year ago, and which culminated in my deciding not to press ahead with what was proposed in the consultation document. I say to those who criticise the Home Office for not consulting and listening that we have had two formal consultations, one of which resulted in me changing my mind, so we are consulting and we are listening. Do we need to do more? Yes, and we will do more. That is important.
I have spoken about the development of offender management. I have been clear from the beginning that we have to get offender management on the ground and fully operational and making the impact that we know it can have. We have pilots in the north-west, and the probation service is in practice developing the split between offender management and interventions throughout the country. I am keen to make sure that that feeds through into the organisational design that will follow.
I want to make it clear to my hon. Friend that local connection is important. She rightly emphasised that on many occasions. I am proud that we have developed a coherent system of local partnerships across the criminal justice system; there are local crime and disorder reduction partnerships and local criminal justice boards, and all such partnerships are extremely important. NOMS will have a national structure and a regional profile, but it will also have to have that local connection.
Mrs. Gillan : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can you advise me how I can ask the Minister to respond, outside this debate, to the serious points I have made about the risk register? In the light of the fact that this Parliament is about to be dissolved, would it be in order for him to have to write to Members who have taken part in this debate within 24 hours?
Mr. Deputy Speaker : It is quite in order for the Minister to offer to write to Members about such matters, but it is doubtful whether one could insist on his doing so within 24 hours.
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