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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 13 December 2005

[Frank Cook in the Chair]

Probation Service

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Tony Cunningham.]

9.30 am

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): I am grateful to have the opportunity to talk about the future of the probation service. I am not only a strong supporter but a big admirer of it for the difficult work that it does. It has a key role in what the Government describe as the fight against crime, and in building a better society, by working to redeem offenders, to support them so that they do not slip back into the habit offending, and working to sustain former prisoners and offenders as they adjust to society. It is only that adjustment that will stop them reoffending.

The probation service is overstretched, and in my view the staff are underpaid. There are probably 200,000   offenders, a total that is increasing, but the service is ever more successful and effective in dealing with that number. Indeed, over the last few years it has coped with the many new duties that have been thrust upon it—custody plus for instance, introduced by the Criminal Justice Act 2003—all of which has produced what the Home Office estimates will be a 70,000 increase in its case load.

Last year, the probation service supervised 12,600 high-risk offenders. Only 79 of them—0.6 per cent.—had reoffended by the end of that supervision. Its breach targets have been achieved in 92 per cent. of cases, and eight out of 10 supervisory periods have been sustained for six months or more. In other words, it is   doing a very good job. It was helped by the reorganisation of 2001, which created a national service. That good reform is working well, and I ask the Minister to tell us why it is now being scrapped. What evaluation has been done of that successful reform? The probation service has adjusted to it, and is working successfully, yet it now has to face another change.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I am sorry to say that I shall not be able to speak in the debate, nor stay until the end.

I pick up on the point that my hon. Friend put to the Minister and suggest that the answer may not be all that    helpful. It is not at all obvious whether the 2001 reorganisation has been monitored or evaluated, but it was said that it would deal with fragmentation and limited accountability, both locally and nationally. It has been successful, but here we are introducing more fragmentation, locally and nationally, which will weaken accountability even further. What is the rationale for that?

Mr. Mitchell : I wish I knew. I am no expert in that form of psychology, but my hon. Friend makes a telling point. Nor am I am expert on the reasons for this process
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of restless change. As soon as something settles in, it is changed without evaluation. That is why I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to tell us what evaluation has been done. Just how bad is the service? He must tell us when winding up. We need to know before we can comment on the new framework. Will it improve matters or not?

It is a process of restless change. Unfortunately, it is not untypical of the Government. We have the blue skies thinker, Lord Birt, in the stratosphere; and we have the grey walls thinker, Lord Carter, who is incarcerated behind the grey walls of the House of Lords. They come up with bright new schemes for changing everything.

We face another bout of change, but is it necessary? It will effectively abolish the national probation service. Indeed, there are indications that the national probation directorate is already being run down. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will deal with that. It will be changed under the proposals set out in the consultation paper "Restructuring Probation to Reduce Re-offending"; I have at least touched it, if not read it in detail. It is another product of the restless process of change. That, too, is typical of the process. Again, none of the views on which the paper is based has been thought through or researched. They are assertions, not demonstrable proof of an ability to remedy failings in the existing system. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is a maxim I believe in politics. I think that the Labour party is a more conservative party and that   should be our maxim. Why, then, is there this restless change?

The paper argues that contestability is better than local co-operation based on the existing structure; co-operation with the police, the magistrates and the community. On the argument that contestability is vital, a unified service will be replaced by fragmentation into business units, and local co-operation will be replaced by contestability. Contestability must mean value for money and the introduction of the profit motive into this judicial service.

David Taylor : Is not this whole concept of contestability predicated on something that simply is not the case? It assumes that a throng of private businesses eager to manage Britain's offending population can see the market potential of the addicted alcoholic or deviant, mentally confused and otherwise dysfunctional offenders, like the angel imprisoned in a block of marble. They are not my words, but those of Richard Heller, who is not necessarily a friend of the Government but is absolutely hostile to these proposals.

Mr. Mitchell : I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention, as I too received a letter from Richard Heller, which sets out his views and the experience of his wife, who was in the probation service and who sadly died a few weeks ago. It was a powerful and moving letter, which sums up this case. The ethos must be co-operation and service to the offender, not the profit motive and value for money. Value to society is the ethos, not value for money; the two are not the same. Yet on the basis of that untested, unproven assertion, the 42 local area boards will be abolished. Quite apart from the fact that they will shortly abolish themselves as areas, because of the reorganisation of the police service, which will be completed, one hopes, in two years—another restless change process—new areas will be required for those that presently work for probation.
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The area boards will be abolished and replaced by regional business managers, who will invite bids to provide the service from new bodies and contributors; outside organisations. They could be anything; prison companies, charities or cattle prod manufacturers, which   also produce tagging devices. The very slogan, "Correction companies" brings to mind sadomasochism of all kinds. One does not know what the organisations will be. Yet, untried organisations will be brought in to replace what is now an effective, well functioning service. They will all be able to bid for contracts to run the service for profit, in local units.

What is wrong with that can be fairly readily summed up; it is an attempt to create an artificial market in probation services, which should not be a market at all. This is a judicial function, a service for the courts and offenders, not a means of profit. What is wrong with the proposal? Probation is part of the judicial system. It is an agency of justice, not an agency of commerce. To make it an agency of commerce must undermine trust and undermine its integrity. Judge Judge—"Here come da judge, judge"—has pointed out the unsuitability of bringing commerce into this function. It will not only undermine trust but produce obvious conflicts of interest.

One pictures the scene. A probation officer appears in court to make his recommendations. He recommends that the offender be committed to lag's hall, which is run by his group, group 69, to provide correctional services, and he offers the court a DVD presentation of its charms and attractions. It will be exciting stuff; visual displays of the sort of place to which the offender will be sent.

Perhaps the probation officer could recommend tagging; his company McTag-it, which is based in Scotland and can produce red tags that are approved by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, can be worn with any clothing, and will keep the offender under effective supervision.

Perhaps, on the other hand, the probation officer could recommend community service and say that, just by coincidence, his company, Charitable Drains R Us, provides useful work digging drains for churches, public toilets and other places in which offenders can usefully be employed.

David Taylor : I am not sure that I can intervene effectively at this point, but surely they have tartan tags north of the border. My hon. Friend makes these places sound as attractive as Grimsby without street lights. Does he agree that there is a market to tag, to survey and to incarcerate offenders, but that there is no business to reform them, which is the problem? The performance indicators for reform will not respond to the conventional levers of the usual market.

Mr. Mitchell : Again, apart from his point about Grimsby, my hon. Friend hits the nail on the head, and I am grateful to him for hitting all the nails that I have left standing in my harangue.

The scrapping of the reorganisation of the service is an invitation to create conflicts of interest, as I said. It is also an end to community co-operation, because the boards in effect manage community co-operation. Will a
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commercial organisation do that? I doubt it. The Home Office says that it will create a vibrant mixed economy in probation services locally. That is the sort of nonsense that Ministers talk when they have nothing to say.

The probation trusts will be run by businessmen who will not be able to secure local co-operation, and will not include magistrates, as the current bodies do. They will not have the same roots in the community. Their roots will be in profit and value for money. That is a deeply unattractive picture, because there will be fear, uncertainty, and a feeling of betrayal in the probation service, whose work the Government should be praising and encouraging. They should be inspecting it, too, but they should praise and encourage it because it has been so successful. Saying that it works well does not mean that it cannot be improved, but everyone agrees that it is improving. The proposal, however, is the reward that it is being given for making those efforts to improve.

The picture is so unattractive that I hope that the Minister has noticed that Scotland, the land of Rebus and substantial crime levels, has rejected the proposal in favour of community co-operation made statutory. We could and should do the same. I should add that the National Assembly for Wales does not want a bar of the proposal.

My hon. Friend the Minister has wide experience of custodial institutions; I understand that she went to Cheltenham ladies college, the potting shed of the English rose. She also has a history of violence. In exchanges about the shortening of the hours of Parliament, she threatened to break my arm. I have not told anyone that before apart from my wife, who was deeply hurt; she said that if anyone was going to break my arm for not voting for the proposals, it would be her, not the Minister. The Minister comes from that background, so why are we leaping in the dark? Surely it is not the ethos of Cheltenham ladies college to go leaping in the dark. That sounds very reprehensible.

Why are the Government opting for an untried, untested pot-pourri of confusing theories based on business efficiency? Why do they not build on the service's steady improvement instead of abandoning it? Why are they going for an untested, untried model?

The regulatory impact assessment that was published on 1 November is a disgrace to any Government that is concerned with the efficiency of the service. It is required for public consultation, but no bank would lend money on the quantifiable aspects of it. It is the shabbiest regulatory impact assessment that I have ever seen. It asserts that there will be efficiency savings of between 3 per cent. and 8.5 per cent. Where? How? It says that it will cut costs and will save £625 million. Where? How? What is the proof? Where will that saving come from? Consider the history of the private sector in saving money for the Home Office. Morrisons took over the hostels that the probation service uses and the costs have gone up by 62 per cent., yet we are told that there will be a saving from this change. The private sector also took over the management of probation premises. Their costs are up 35 per cent.

The Home Office has no experience, no effectiveness and no skill in dealing with the private sector; consider the inordinate profits being made by the tagging companies out of a fairly minor and easy-to-run area of business. What investment will be made in training
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under the new system? Will the emphasis be purely on profits? One cannot calculate a rate of return on a community service that is dealing with redemption; as opposed to saving people's souls, it is saving their futures in a society in which there are successes and failures. Some things are tough to achieve, and it is impossible to calculate a return rate on that kind of service, but the Government propose to do exactly that.

David Taylor : Is it not the case that probation officers, understandably, feel that their role is changing from agents of justice to pawns of commerce? It is tragic that that is happening in the hundredth year of their profession. We should be celebrating their successes, not waving goodbye to them in such a calculated way.

Mr. Mitchell : Were it not so tragic, it would be laughable, particularly because it is proposed on an intellectual basis. One cannot build a structure on a foundation as shabby as the thinking in the regulatory impact assessment. No business case has been made, so far as I can see. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us. Is there a business case for this, or is it all seat of the pants stuff? Admittedly, the seat of the Home Secretary's pants is a capacious area, but if we are flying by it there has to be demonstrable support, and we need demonstrable figures to give us faith in what has been decided. All that we have is the assertion that it will cut the rate of offending by 5 per cent. That is ridiculous. Will it do so? I very much doubt it. What careful research has gone into the assessment? I hope that the Minister will try to justify it.

In conclusion, I urge the Minister not to undermine a service that is doing wonderful work. It is much improved and has adjusted successfully to the reforms imposed on it only four years ago. Its officers are servants of society and of the judicial system; they are working well with the police, the magistrates and the community. She must not put all that at risk by implementing untried, untested theories about commercial motivation, so I urge her to put redemption at the centre, not profit.

9.50 am

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) on securing the debate. I have lost count of how many times we have debated this issue; it could be the fourth or fifth—

Mr. Austin Mitchell : The sixth.

John McDonnell : My hon. Friend says that this is the sixth occasion.

A number of years ago, we had a rational debate about how to reform the probation and prison services, integrated sentences, assessments and whatever support was required to ensure that offenders never reoffended. We also discussed how those things could be linked holistically with local authorities, social services departments and, in many instances, local primary care trusts to see what health care and other support was provided to offenders and their families.

That rational debate was led by the professionals in the field, including judges, magistrates and others in the judicial system. We also engaged with the police, prison
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officers and the probation service. Leading up to 2001, we were perhaps engaged in one of the most productive, rational debates on the issue for decades. It was a cross-party discussion, and a range of views were expressed about the service's performance up to that point and   how we could improve it. That evidence-based discussion reflected the long experience of those in the service—as has been mentioned, the 100th anniversary is coming up—but it was also based on unemotional but committed discussion of how we served our community.

That is how the last reorganisation came about in 2001. We put together the national probation service and set up the national probation directorate. We were all committed to a multi-agency approach to tackling the problem of reoffending and to ensuring that the service was adequately resourced and based on professional, well-trained staff who were secure in the knowledge that they had the Government's support in the difficult task that they had to undertake.

That was the rational debate. What we have had since then would be farcical if, as my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby rightly said, the issue were not so serious. The Government have introduced half-baked proposals that have not been thought through and have launched new services almost monthly. I do not know how many times we have had press releases and press events to announce the launch of the National Offender Management Service. Staff have been appointed on fairly high salaries before legislation has even been passed to enable the service to be brought into operation. Services have been distributed around the country and given bizarre titles, from NOMS to ROMS to whatever.

For some reason, the process in which we engaged from 1997 to 2001 was abandoned and we went into a headlong rush, but towards what? Let us call it what it is: it is not contestability or best value that the Government have in mind, but straightforward privatisation. Probation officers and prison officers know what is coming at the end of the day. No matter how the Government dress things up and no matter what reasons they give regarding improvements to the service, we have not, as my hon. Friend said, seen any detailed analysis of the system as it now operates. We have seen no detailed research that has been accepted by the professionals in the field or by independent observers of how the system established in 2001 has operated. That is what is so disappointing about the Government's performance, and it is becoming an increasing source of anger and anguish among professionals who see the Government's proposals undermining their service.

I welcome the Home Secretary's recent publication—provided that the consultation is genuine. If it is, and we listen to the professionals in the field, we will return to a proposal based on co-operation and, as my hon. Friend said, largely on the Welsh or the Scottish model. That is    a multi-agency approach that embodies local accountability and involves the people who deliver at the sharp end.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that despite nearly 100 years of splendid service to our local communities the probation service is too often seen as the ugly sister in the criminal justice system? It has been hugely
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overlooked, and the present uncertainty and confusion can only add to the demoralisation of probation officers who are doing their best in difficult circumstances.

John McDonnell : I know that it is nearing Christmas, but I was trying to avoid as many pantomime references as I could. They are tempting, I know. I thought that the 2001 restructuring was the first step in acknowledging the significance of the role of the probation services. That is why I welcomed it. I agree that there is concern that for too long the role of the probation service has not been acknowledged and in some instances funding has   not been allocated in a way that recognises the significance of that role. The 2001 restructuring addressed that to a certain extent.

In London, in particular, we went through a number of budgetary crises on an annual basis, almost like a hardy perennial, but that is now being addressed as a result of the recognition of the importance of the service. That is why we are disconcerted that that rational approach, which recognised the importance of the service, examined the need for additional resources and gained them, and recognised that we should be listening to the professionals on the front line, seems to have gone out of the window as a result of the Government's obsession with competition and their dogmatic approach that the best way to improve services is through competition and the best way to achieve competition through privatisation.

David Taylor : My hon. Friend referred to pantomimes. In a similar context, is this not an extreme example of the Alice in Wonderland idea of verdict first and trial later? We have had discussions about the probation service and NOMS in which the dialogue between those who are concerned about the lack of a business plan and the sundry Ministers could have been scripted by Samuel Beckett. We were always waiting for a marvellous business plan, until one one day appeared as some under-nourished, pathetic and ill-argued screen on the Home Office website. That is not the sort of business plan that we had in mind, and is that not at the heart of the problems we face?

John McDonnell : The number of our debates reflects the lack of available information and evidence provided to Members and therefore the number of times that Members have had to call for such debates to try to extract some information from Government on the rationale for their approach. Every time we have had the debate we have exposed the fact that there is no rationale except the privatisation of the service.

I have considered the evidence provided to the Select Committee via the various professional groups that provide the service on the ground. I speak as secretary of the justice unions group. We have been meeting on a cross-party basis for nearly two years and meeting the professional providers of the service from the probation service, the Prison Officers Association and the voluntary sector to discuss the issues that they face on the ground and the reforms that they require. None supports the approach that is being taken. It is interesting what a bashing the Select Committee's
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evidence gives the Government's overall approach. At the same time, it is interesting that the Government are still doggedly pursuing privatisation.

If our approach were rational, we would assess the performance of the probation service. I note from evidence provided to the Select Committee that it is performing better than ever in its history. Figures for November show that breach targets were achieved in 80 per cent. of cases, orders completed in 70 per cent. of cases and offender behaviour programmes completed by 91 per cent. of targeted cases. In addition, eight out of 10 supervisees were still in contact with their probation officer after six months' supervision, and 93 per cent. of victims were contacted within the required period. That is not a system that is imploding or failing. It is a system that, as a result of Government restructuring in 2001, additional resources and professional direction is succeeding exceptionally well. I pay tribute to the service providers themselves, the probation and prison officers who are working so hard.

The Government's proposal is about privatisation. What is that motivated by? Profit-making, of course. How do people make profits in a public service or in any service, but particularly in a privatisation? They sweat the assets. How do they do that? The first asset is the work force, so pay and conditions are reduced. Where privatisation has occurred within the prison service, salary levels have been reduced. The average pay rates for prison officers are 51 per cent. greater than for their private sector counterparts. We see a reduction in pay rates overall. When one adds the value of pensions and holiday benefits to that, there can be a difference in rates of up to 70 per cent.

Mr. Mitchell : The difference in pay rates between private and public prisons leads to a far greater turnover in the staff at the privatised prisons. That must be bad for the service. If that develops in the probation service, it will be even worse for offenders.

John McDonnell : My hon. Friend is right. Turnover rates are sometimes 10 times greater in private prisons than in public prisons. At the moment, a probation officer is trained for two years, in service and in various correspondence courses and additional course support. With those turnover rates, we would be left with a de-professionalised probation service. We would be left with a large number of staff who were untrained or undergoing training and never completing it. We would de-professionalise the service. There is no commitment from the private sector to stay the course over a two-year training programme to ensure that staff are adequately trained. I fear that the private sector will cream off the profits, and it will be left to the public service to invest in training to ensure that we have at least a core of trained staff providing the service itself.

My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby also mentioned how costs have increased dramatically where elements of the probation service have been privatised. Under the Morrisons contract, costs rose by 62 per cent. That is not making profits, but profiteering at the expense of the public sector. When we had this debate more than a year ago, it was not just about the increase in costs of 35 per cent., but about the lunacies and inadequacies of the management of premises. There were classic examples of how many private sector staff it
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took to change a light bulb in one of those establishments. Bizarrely, staff were sent more than 100 miles for a simple maintenance operation.

The other issue that has been mentioned—lack of independence in the privatised probation service—will undermine confidence in the service. When profit becomes the motive, independence of judgment is often driven out, as we have seen in other private sector operations and in other privatisations. No matter how good the probation officers are at their job, no matter how committed they are, they will come under private sector pressure to maintain and maximise profits rather than to fulfil the role that they would have had in the public sector.

The issue of local accountability is increasingly worrying. Local authorities will be inadequately represented on local trusts or boards. There will be no requirement for judges or even magistrates to be represented. That breaks a link between the provision of justice and local views and attitudes that we have had for nearly 500 years. The link between local magistrates and how offenders are dealt with in their local area will be broken.

The Government have prayed in aid the role of the voluntary sector. We have met with the voluntary sector throughout the process. It has the same fears as probation officers that they will be squeezed out of the system by the nature of the contracts that will be awarded to the private sector, that they will not have the resources to be able to compete and that they will come under pressure to provide services in a way that they do not feel appropriate, given their role to date. As much as probation officers themselves, the voluntary sector fears for the future of the service, and it is equally dedicated to maintaining the service in the public sector.

I urge the Government to think again even at this late stage. Let us consult our colleagues in Scotland and Wales on how the multi-agency approach is bedding down and operating there. Let us have further consultation with the staff through their trade unions to ensure that we establish a service based on what the professionals tell us about what is needed, including the necessary investment and how the service best operates in the public sector, co-operating with the voluntary sector, to achieve the best results.

I fear for the future of the service. I feel that we are throwing out a 100-year tradition that has served this country well. Of course there have been mistakes in the past, but there have been mistakes in all services. I warn the House that if we privatise this service, we will not have seen anything yet. There will be a backlash against the proposals if they are implemented in our communities, given that the private sector fails those communities when it comes to securing justice, peace, security and the end of reoffending. I shall encourage as many hon. Members as possible to vote against proposals if legislation is ever introduced in the House. I    also give this commitment: if these iniquitous proposals provoke industrial action among probation officers or prison officers, I will join them on the picket lines to oppose them.

10.6 am

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) for introducing the debate. In the light of
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the consultation paper that came out recently, it is important that we have this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) says that we have had six debates on the National Offender Management Service. We have certainly had five or six, but one thing that has been true of all the debates is that they have taken place in Westminster Hall. What we have not had, and what we should have had, on the proposed major restructuring of the service is a debate in the main Chamber of the House of Commons.

I suspect that one consequence of having the debates as Adjournment debates in Westminster Hall is that quite a number of hon. Members are not fully aware of what is happening and what is proposed. When they do find out, the Government will find that there is considerable opposition to what is happening. Previously, when a major rally was held in Central Hall Westminster by the probation officers' union—the National Association of Probation Officers—many hon. Members were contacted by their local probation services and they then gave clear support to those services in what they were saying. Exactly the same thing will happen if a Bill is introduced in the new year and we have a debate in the main Chamber of the House of Commons.

As has been said, it is difficult to understand the rationale for what is happening. We are dealing with a service that was reorganised only in 2001. Among the major reasons that the Government gave at that time for the reorganisation and the creation of the national probation service was that the existing structures were fragmented and unaccountable. That was the argument for creating the present structure. The consultation paper issued before the 2001 reorganisation talked about having too many autonomous units free to deploy   resources from central Government, limited accountability and a lack of democratic accountability at local level. It was also argued that fragmentation inhibited efficiency and did not provide value for money.

Having said all that in 2001 and created the national service, the Government now seem to be going in exactly the opposite direction. One would assume that if a service had been restructured in 2001 and it was thought necessary four years later to come back and do something else, there would be shoals of evidence for the failure of the 2001 restructuring, and of the service not having performed or delivered. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington pointed out, all the statistics say that the probation service is performing better than it has for many years. If that is happening, what is the rationale behind tearing up the structure that has been in existence for only four years?

During those four years, many other changes have happened, which have had to be coped with. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 changed sentencing, with community sentences and the new custodial sentences, and that has added a considerable amount to the probation case load. Even so, there is no evidence that the probation service has not met all its targets. In the most recently published report, the national probation directorate said that the results were better than at any stage since the national probation service was created, and they were expected to get better still.
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Nobody is suggesting that everything that needs to be done to deal with offenders has to be done by the probation service. There is already co-operative work going on, involving the voluntary, not-for-profit sector. Many of the current drugs rehabilitation projects are run through voluntary sector organisations. However, if we go down the road of contestability, it will be a problem not only for the probation service, but for the voluntary, not-for-profit sector, which will be in the same business of facing risks, and needing spare capacity to make bids. Some smaller voluntary sector organisations have told us that they are concerned that, after the changes that are now envisaged, they will be squeezed out of work that they can currently do with local probation wards and services.

Nobody is arguing that there should not be a multi-agency approach; nobody has a problem with the idea of partnership between a range of statutory and voluntary organisations. Nobody has any difficulties with that. However, the issue of contestability destroys that co-operative working, and some of the arguments that have been advanced about the need to bring in privatisation—because that is what it is—have cited what has happened in the Prison Service, and have argued that the effect of privatisation in the Prison Service has been to drive up standards. If one looks at where privatisation has happened in prison administration in the last 10 to 15 years, the private sector has only ever had brand new prisons to manage. It has never had to face dealing with Victorian prisons with serious overcrowding, or with the prisons that have had the biggest problems. It is the public sector that has raised the standards in prisons with the most serious problems, not the private sector. By and large, the private sector has had the easy bits of the Prison Service to deal with.

John McDonnell : There are now examples of the private sector confronting a problem that it is unable to deal with, and then bringing in the public sector to handle it. I give the example in my constituency of Harmondsworth detention centre, where there was a major riot with an associated fire. It was the private sector that withdrew, and public sector workers—Prison Officers Association members—then had to deal with the problem.

Mr. Gerrard : That is a common pattern. Public sector services are being privatised and when things go wrong, it is almost always in the end the public sector that ends up picking up the tab and dealing with the problem. I shall say a word or two about the latest consultation paper—the paper that was issued recently, entitled "Restructuring Probation to Reduce Reoffending." The use of that title makes the assertion and assumption that    restructuring probation is necessary to reduce reoffending. A number of issues arise from that consultation paper. I am sure that other hon. Members will have seen the response to the consultation made by the Probation Boards Association, the national body that represents the local probation boards, which are currently the employers of probation staff. Incidentally, that raises another issue: if we go down the road of contestability, who will be the employers of the current probation staff?
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The probation boards welcomed quite a bit of what the Government said earlier: they welcomed the idea of putting the prevention of reoffending at the centre of what they do and the idea of packages of support and intervention for every offender. No one has issues with such aims and objectives. However, they point out that although the consultation paper has been issued, the Cabinet Office code of practice is not being followed. That is acknowledged in the introduction to the consultation paper—the argument made for not following the code is that the 12-week consultation period is not needed because

However, as the Probation Boards Association points out, a significant change is being proposed, and the document returns to some issues that we thought had gone away.

It was only in July last year that the then Minister for Prisons and Probation concluded that we should keep the existing probation boards, at least for the foreseeable future. We all thought at the time that that meant that the probation boards would stay for some time but, a year and a bit later, we are back again discussing the suggestion that the 42 probation boards will be abolished. As we have all been saying in this debate, the overriding test that should be applied is: how will these changes have a positive impact on the degree of reoffending and why, and what is the evidence that they will do so?

If we dismantle the probation boards as suggested, that will remove the local links that exist—it will disengage local communities, the local judiciary and police forces from those links. In the present structure there is coterminosity of services and, particularly since the restructuring of some police services is under discussion, one would have thought that this matter might be better left alone until some of those decisions have been made.

It seems to me that the proposals threaten an end to publicly provided probation services in the form in which we have known them. I think that if the Government introduce legislation to abolish the probation boards and to restructure the probation services, they will find that many more hon. Members will be interested and concerned about that issue than are present this morning. That is what happened the last time that this issue was raised at a national level.

I hope that before we go too far down this road we will stop and think again and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington said, listen to what the professionals—the people who work in the service, who deliver the service on the ground and who run the service through the probation boards—are actually saying, because none of those people supports the proposals. I urge Ministers to think again about the route that they are taking.

10.19 am

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): I am delighted to be able to make a brief contribution. I am moved to do so by two things: by the tour de force of my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), and by the
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fact that I have always had a high regard for the Minister, about whose educational background I know more, thanks to my hon. Friend, than I did at the start of the debate.

The Home Office has form on this issue: the Government have suggested in recent times that forensic science and young offenders' institutions should be opened up to market contestability. But it stepped back slightly on those fields of endeavour, and I hope they will do so in respect of the probation service.

I repeat the question that I asked my hon. Friend the Minister last week at Home Office questions, which she may remember: do the Government think that any part of the management and apprehension of offenders has such a strong public service element that it should not be open to contestability and marketisation? I paraphrase my hon. Friend's reply, which was that as long as there was a public service element in the provision, she was indifferent about who was the provider.

There must come a point at which the public service element of something is so strong that all parties recoil from its being provided by a private company. I hope the Home Office would rule out plans for market contestability in the case of a magistrates clerk, a judge or a police officer, and the probation service is not very far from those core elements of our judicial system that have such a strong public service element. That there is not a well developed market and a rush of private providers coming forward to manage offenders suggests that there are some things in which the public service element is so strong that that is where the line should be drawn.

Across Government, the only model being provided is of the public sector being a commissioner and being indifferent to who the provider is, but time and again Ministers have to step back because of opposition, as they have had to do as a result of the situation in primary care trusts in the health service. I hope that my   hon. Friend will do the same in respect of the probation service.

I want to add a little more force to some of the points made by other hon. Members. It could be said that the broad issue has been subject to consultation before, and the Government's defence is that a 12-week consultation period is therefore unnecessary, but these proposals are so radically different from anything that has been consulted on before that it would have shown a measure of good faith to have had a full, 12-week consultation.

In north Yorkshire, it is feared that there will no longer be a locally commissioned service and that what we have will be decided by regional or national bureaucrats. People are worried that there will be no local community or judicial input in the remaining local boards and trusts and that input will come mainly from business.

I shall be fascinated to hear what the two Opposition parties say about the politics of the proposal. If they announced that they would oppose the marketisation and privatisation of the probation service, they would kill the proposal and provide a great public service.

From my humble position on the Back Benches, which is likely to be permanent, I say to my hon. Friend that there are two ways to be a junior Minister: you can either keep your head down, carry out the brief and take instructions from whichever bright young thing happens
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to be in No. 10 Downing street, or you can exercise some political judgment. That is what I hope the Home Office has done in respect of the forensic science service, although I am not quite sure; I trust that it is pausing for reflection.

I have enough regard for the Minister to believe that she will not get into a political situation in which the Labour Government carry large numbers of measures only with support from the majority Opposition party, but that is her only hope of getting measures on this matter through the House. I hope that such is the descriptive potential of the proposal, and such is the feeling that a line must be drawn somewhere between the public and the private sector, that the Opposition parties will say today that they oppose it. I also hope that my hon. Friend will stage a stylish and managed retreat.

10.25 am

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) on securing the debate. His instinct for the ethos of girls' public schools is surprisingly spot-on. Cheltenham ladies college is, of course, in my constituency, and I can tell him that the researcher, Elizabeth Poston, who prepared me for this debate, was recently at that college and is just as alarmed as he is by some of the proposals. Perhaps the Minister is out of kilter on this issue.

I do not doubt the Government's sincerity in wanting to reduce reoffending and crime, which are critical issues, but that makes it even more important and critical that we get this right. The Government's proposals run the risk of making some of the classic errors of new Labour projects, such as seeking solutions in restructuring rather than in quality of work. Other examples include their short-termism, their naivety about business—I say that as someone who has a background in both business and the voluntary sector—and their instinct for centralisation or, at the very least, delocalisation.

I shall take those issues one by one. First, I shall address the practice of seeking solutions in reorganisation. I made this point in a surprisingly similar debate on police restructuring. Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary was supposedly there to improve the performance of constabularies, yet the solution appeared instead to be in restructuring. Similarly, the probation service has Her Majesty's inspectorate of probation, the purpose of which—in case the Minister has forgotten—includes contributing to improved performance in the NPS, NOMS and youth offending teams, and contributing to sound policy and effective service delivery by providing advice. Perhaps the Minister can tell us: has HMIP so failed in that duty that we have to abolish the existing probation service, or has it recommended the change? I know that the Carter report suggested it, but has there been any recommendation from the inspectorate that these changes should take place? I trawled its website this morning and found no such recommendation.

There are better ways to try to improve reoffending rates, such as the better enforcement of licences, making sure that breaches in community service orders are more rigorously pursued and better education. The
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National Audit Office recently delved into the area of reoffending, and it, too, failed to recommend any kind of restructuring on this scale, but recommended considering education. It said that it is clear that overcrowding in prisons is disrupting attempts at    reducing reoffending through education, and recommended shorter modular education courses that can be standardised across establishments to minimise disruption. It also suggested arranging for relevant education records to be transferred when a prisoner is moved, or introducing evening or weekend courses in local prisons to increase learning opportunities for prisoners. We know that the high level of functional illiteracy and lack of numeracy among prisoners contributes to reoffending. The NAO accepts that link, yet we are not giving time for its recommendations to be accepted and acted on. Therefore, we are rushing into a restructuring solution.

The social exclusion unit—another Government body—has identified housing stability as an important issue in patterns of reoffending. There is the possibility of looking at more joined-up operations without this kind of restructuring between youth offending teams, the police, the National Offender Management Service, local authorities, and voluntary sector services such as drug rehabilitation services. There are even simple solutions such as the branding and presentation of information and the way in which services are presented, and the recent example of community service teams being rebranded as community payback teams, which is welcome, I suppose, if it is about trying to emphasise the importance of the victim's role in community rehabilitation and community service provision. There are lots of things that the Government could consider, but they have opted instead for a structural solution, as they are doing with the police. There is an equal chance that that may go wrong.

The second issue that I shall address is short-termism. Many hon. Members have mentioned that the probation service in its current form was put in place as recently as 2001; indeed, NOMS was set up only last year. We have the model of the health service in which primary care groups were set up and were, in theory, being piloted, but were abolished before they had even finished their pilots. We then had the primary care trusts, which were established only in 2001, but they are now being abolished and restructured on a grand scale. The Countryside Agency was set up and abolished by the same Government. We have the repeated terrorist legislation—every time there is a major atrocity we seem to produce fresh anti-terrorism legislation urgently. The Government's knee-jerk reaction is to attempt to tackle each new alarming set of statistics or findings through restructuring or new legislation. Instead, they should allow the reforms that they have already introduced, and which we may support in many respects, the time to bed in. They should wait to see whether those reforms are working and then evaluate them properly. Several hon. Members have mentioned lack of evaluation.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and to other hon. Members for missing the early part of the debate.
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The regulatory impact assessment, which I am sure the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) has read, says that the restructuring of the probation service is a positive move. Does he agree that, when one picks away at it, the regulatory impact assessment does not say clearly why it is a positive move and why there will be cost savings?

Martin Horwood : The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point. The lack of thorough evaluation is a major factor.

My third point concerns new Labour's naivety in business. It has a breathless enthusiasm for business terminology. We have heard the Home Secretary's comment about the "vibrant mixed economy", as if that were appropriate for a probation service. There is a statement in "Restructuring Probation to Reduce Re-offending" about winning business from the Secretary of State. One can almost sense his enthusiasm for playing big business.

I have a business background, and markets operate well where clear consumer pressure operates. Consumer markets operate on several different levels. They operate not only on price, but on people's experience of the product, on their perceptions of quality, on brand loyalty and, these days, on the ethics of the product. Without those consumer pressures, markets are reduced to being about contracts for price. Cost becomes the only significant factor.

Similarly, pseudo-markets in the NHS or the railways have not really operated as the Government expected them to because an individual passenger or patient cannot choose a particular rail company at a particular moment. They must take the train to London that turns up on the platform, just as they must be treated in the accident and emergency department to which they are sent. They do not have consumer choice in that sense. Likewise, offenders and victims will not be able to choose another probation service provider when they come to use the service or attempt to influence it.

This is a pseudo-market; it is not a market in the true sense. The market will not operate in the way in which the Government expect it to. I am not ideologically committed to state provision, but the business approach is not always right. Each case needs careful evaluation and thought.

As the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) pointed out, even in business some core competencies are not outsourced. One must ask what the Government's core competencies are. The probation service would seem to me to be pretty close to being a core competency. Moreover, a new business approach would not be launched without a robust business plan and without plenty of evaluation having been undertaken. I have known plenty of large companies that would spend 10 years evaluating a new product or approach before launching it on the market. The Government could learn something from such an approach.

Finally, on centralisation, which I would call "de-localisation", my constituency is facing less-local hospital children's services and planning powers and a less-local ambulance trust, fire control centre, police force and primary care trust. We even face a less-local strategic health authority, and the probation service is now to be added to that list. In the end, the provision of
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probation services in my constituency will depend on the whim of the Secretary of State. Either it is a huge coincidence that all the evidence about all those different services happens to point in the same direction or some other underlying reason is behind the Government's rush to de-localise services. That reason may be more about saving money.

Hon. Members and the National Association of Probation Officers have listed many practical problems. A conflict of interest arises when private companies advise courts on sentences and parole decisions, because those companies must weigh up their commercial interest and a duty to their shareholders against the public interest. There is the problem of sensitive personal data on offenders and victims being handed to multiple data processors. There is an impact on youth offending teams, on police and on local social services, which may need to deal with multiple providers of probation services in their area. We must also consider the impact of the different cultures of the police and probation service within the National Offender Management Service, which has not yet had time to bed in.

There is an overall recurring theme of restructuring, rather than examination of the underlying problems and attempts to improve the quality of work. There is short-termism in restructuring before proper evaluation. There is naivety about business provision and business terminology, and there is delocalisation.

In Scotland, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Labour has had to find a different approach. After much careful thought, a different route has been taken. I suggest to the Minister that, instead of risking more crime and, possibly, more lost lives, she and her Government should, for once, think again, take time, take advice and take the right decision.

10.36 am

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): It is a great pleasure to congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) on securing this debate. He said what a good job the probation service had done, and he provided evidence to support that. That has been a consistent theme this morning; my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) agreed with him, and so do I. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby remarked on the process of relentless change based on assertions without evidence, which seems to be the underlying motor of the changes that are proposed to the probation service. I was amused by his flights of fancy on the meaning of correctional services. I should report, for the record, that the hon. Gentleman is wearing red socks, if not a red tag.

I shall not take too much time because there is a history of Ministers not fully addressing the issues in answer to hon. Members who speak. The hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) remarked on 6 April that, during an earlier debate secured by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), concerns were not adequately addressed by the Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) remarked that a letter dated 24 March 2005 did not fully answer all the questions raised in a debate on 16 March. Those are two examples; one in which a Minister had not been able to answer during the debate, and another in which a Minister was not able to answer in writing after the debate.
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It is worth noting that, in the previous debate that took place on this matter, the Minister spoke for seven columns in Hansard, and only in the fifth column did he begin to address the points made by the hon. Member for Crosby. I cannot say whether this applies to the Under-Secretary, but some Ministers seem to take up too much time with bland and uncontroversial reiteration and never get on to the meat of the matter. That is why I do not propose to spend too much time on my remarks.

There are a number of issues to address, the most consistent of which, in previous debates, has been the disfranchisement of those who work for the probation service and the failure to adequately consult before implementing changes proposed by the Government. I shall not repeat those details, which were adequately set out on 6 April. However, despite ministerial promises of flexibility, the results of consultation always seem to end up much as they start.

I conclude that, regardless of responses from Ministers—among them the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), who said that integration was best achieved at regional and local level—not all Ministers have enough clout to dissuade the national offender management system or civil servants from following a course that has been predetermined, presumably, somewhere further up the line. The hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) suggested that bright young things in No. 10 may be responsible for that. There will be brighter young things in No. 10 in the very near future, but I am sure that they will take much more account of the requirements and wishes of those who work in or are served by the public service.

Something about the consultation that surprised me was a letter of 7 November from the director of probation at the national probation service to NPS chief officers and chairs and national probation directorate regional managers, which told them:

The letter continued:

Thos instructions are being given to those who know most about the operation of the probation service. The Minister has some explaining to do about why it is unacceptable for those who know most to criticise the Government's policy on restructuring the probation service, when the Home Secretary invited those who know most to criticise the Opposition's policy on sentencing.

Promises have been sought in the past, and many either have not been given or have been given in such a form that they are not reliable. One of the most significant is the one about commissioning at local, not regional, level. Baroness Scotland recently put out a press release announcing that the measures outlined today would transfer the duty to provide probation services to the Home Secretary. He would then assign to national and regional offender managers, acting on   his behalf, the task of contracting with a range of    providers—public, private or voluntary and
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community—for the supply of probation services. There seems to be complete confusion between the expectations that Ministers—not least a former Home Secretary—have repeated time and again, that the service will be a local one, and statements now coming from the Home Office that it will be regional and national. Unless we get clarity over the way in which the service will be provided, no one will trust it.

A second area on which more information is needed is the timetable for the remaining contestability. Of course we need some of the changes, because prisons do not plug in with probation services, because people are released from prison half way through courses and because there is churning of prisoners, who are moved from one prison to another regardless. I was on the Education Committee and I saw exactly the same kind of things as those for which the National Audit Office has provided evidence. However, although I incline to favour contestability in privatisation, the Minister must concede that the explanations of why it is the right solution in the present case are unconvincing.

Finally, I should like the Minister to say more about evaluation. It is evident that inadequate evaluation has been carried out. Indeed, the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) cited the restructuring that took place in 2001. He said that it was designed to prevent fragmentation and to promote localism, yet there has been no evaluation of that restructuring to say "Yes, it works" or "No, it doesn't work". Instead, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby said, someone behind the grey walls of another place seems to be committed to a national structure.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said, we will support the Government when they are doing what is right. If and when we get the opportunity—I should still like to know when that will be—we would have no concern about voting for a well-worked out Bill that proposed a sensible solution. As I said, market testing can be effective, and contestability can drive standards up as well as, or instead of, driving costs down. However, there is no evidence for the cost savings that are said to be the consequence of the proposal.

The Government do not seem to have settled on their arguments. Even when they are doing what is right, we cannot support them if they are doing it in such a ham-fisted way. That is not to say that the situation is irretrievable. It is retrievable if the Minister listens to what is being said by hon. Members on both sides. I hope that she will listen and, more important, I hope that she will answer.

10.45 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Fiona Mactaggart) : I have written on my notes, "I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend", meaning the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). I sometimes wonder whether I really want to congratulate that person. I do now, because I   am glad that we have been able to discuss such an important issue. However, do I thank that person for giving hon. Members on both sides the opportunity to patronise me, especially about where I went to school?
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No, not particularly. However, we have had a real insight into the views of the different political parties on the fundamental role of the probation service, which is to protect the public and to reduce reoffending.

My hon. Friends seem concerned that we should build on, maintain and preserve the progress that the probation service has made to date. The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) muddled me; he seemed keen to praise such initiatives as community payback but then railed against the Government for delocalising services. Nevertheless, every contribution to the debate has rightly emphasised the importance of the reform of probation in 2001, which led to a national probation service and drove up standards.

I join in the congratulations that many hon. Members have expressed on the service's progress in enforcement. Some 43 per cent. of sentences were enforced in 2001; the   figure is now than 92 per cent. Such progress is important, although where we started from was in some ways depressing.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), who represents the official Opposition, gave us an insight into how they plan to deal with their policy vacuum; they will not say what they think but instead will try to stir it to see whether that helps. They are doing so by discussing the role of Ministers rather than their policies. It was entertaining, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I would prefer to deal with the issues raised by my hon. Friends; what are we trying to do, why are we not building on the achievements made to date, and will it break the system?

We set out clearly what we wanted to achieve in the Carter report. The objective of reducing reoffending is not particularly controversial. We want to achieve it by giving an offender manager the clear role of managing the sentence of an offender; and that should be backed up by intervention.

It is striking that we have invested to deliver that. The improvements that hon. Members referred to were achieved because we made resources available. In 1997, the probation budget was £439 million. At that time, the enforcement target was met in less than half the number of cases. The budget for the current year is £874 million, a real-terms increase of 55 per cent, and the number of staff has increased from 14,000 to 20,000. I give those figures because, among other things, I want to make it clear to my hon. Friends that we do not intend to chuck the service out with the bath water, as they imply. Nor do we seek to make massive savings. Our concern is to ensure that the improvements that have been made are built on.

We must also ensure that we make real progress in reducing reoffending. We have made some progress, but not enough. Our target is to reduce reoffending by 10 per cent., but at the current rate of progress, there is a real risk that we will not achieve that. There is a sense among my colleagues that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. I would not say that our probation services are "broke", but I would say that the improvement made to date is not the most that we can achieve.

There is a real opportunity for us to make greater improvements if we manage to separate offender management from interventions and identify more clearly the outcomes that we want so that we can make another change rather like the one that we made in 2001.
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The driver for change should not be the way in which we have always done things around here; it should be the ambition to do things much better.

Martin Horwood : The Minister says that this is not about sticking to the way in which we have always done things. We have, however, been doing things this way only since 2001. Is she not worried that one of the contributors to the success that she claims could be the presence in the current structure of local probation boards, which, as her proposals make clear, will cease to exist in their current form?

Fiona Mactaggart : The hon. Gentleman has no evidence that local probation boards are the most important, or even a substantial, contributor, although they have certainly played a very important role. Let us be clear; local probation boards make a contribution partly because of their coterminosity with the police, a function that my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) mentioned, which has been very useful.

Another reason why we have been able to improve some of these services is that the local criminal justice boards have worked in partnership with probation officers, with the police, with the judiciary and others to improve offender management.

As the hon. Member for Cheltenham knows, we are also considering the future structure of the police force. As my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow rightly said, that is one of the challenges that we face. People have urged me to listen, and I agree that we must get that structure right.

There is no doubt of the benefits derived from police forces and probation services being able to work in partnership. One has only to consider community sentences and prolific offenders. There is already collaboration between police officers in basic command units and people who work in probation, and that collaboration extends to some voluntary sector partners. I know, for instance, of voluntary sector initiatives in my constituency that work with offenders and are making a contribution. We also need to get that sort of very local partnership right, and we are open to suggestions about how to do that.

John McDonnell : Very briefly, is the Minister assuring us that any changes to the probation service will be timed to be made exactly when changes to the police borders are made?

Fiona Mactaggart : My hon. Friend knows that I cannot give that precise assurance, but I hope I have convinced him that I strongly believe that we want to move these things forward in a parallel way so that we can reap some of the real benefits of coterminosity and working in partnership, which have not been emphasised sufficiently in the debate.

Mr. Austin Mitchell : The patience taught at Cheltenham ladies college is commendable and essential
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for this debate. My hon. Friend does not seem to have grasped our point. We all want the improvement that has taken place with the creation of a national service to continue, but we are arguing about the best way of advancing that. The improvement has been achieved on the basis of the local running of the service, of co-operation and of a community service serving the courts. The Minister asserts that the service can be improved further by bringing in commercial briefs and contestability. Can she prove that?

Fiona Mactaggart : Until some of it has happened it is difficult to prove precisely how any initiative will operate. At present some 20 probation hostels and other similar provisions are provided, not by the probation service but by voluntary sector providers. Those play a critical role in public protection. In addition, there is provision in the prison service. Hon. Members have referred to that and pointed out how the privately run prisons are largely modern prisons. That is true. Nevertheless the advantages that they have introduced in the way we run our prisons, in terms not just of the physical space of prisons but of the relationship between prison staff and inmates, have significantly improved the decency agenda in our prisons.

That is not something that everyone predicted would happen as a result of introducing the private sector in prisons, but it has been an important result which has had an impact on the culture of the public as well as the private prison service. It has helped to make our prisons more effective. We believe that the best way for the public interest to be served is to identify what needs to be done, the functions that we expect the probation service to fulfil and the standards we expect. We then must look at the best way that that can be achieved. That might be to invite voluntary, private and charitable organisations to play a role. They already do to some extent. Their role has been kept quite small and frankly needs to be much bigger.

It might be achieved through the private sector which has introduced the more efficient use of technology in supervising offenders. That is not universally efficient and not every change has always been excellent in all respects. That is true of any major public sector reform. There is no doubt that some of the savings that we have been able to make by introducing, for example, tagging on bail have enabled us to run a safer service to protect the public at less public expense.

Why do I want to save that public money? It is not to reduce the spending on this facility but because I believe that we need to reinvest it in further initiatives to improve public protection. The best way to improve public protection is to reduce reoffending further. We have made progress on that, but it has been at a snail's pace. It is quite clear that community sentences—

Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order. The next issue that requires our attention is the funding of children's hospices.
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