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11 Dec 2006 : Column 586

John Reid: I recall that the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter before and, yes, I am open to that suggestion. My view is that among the many causal factors we should address inside prison are low literacy and numeracy, which lead to a range of frustrations—anger, the inability to get and hold down a job, and so on. Outside prison, housing is another problem we have to deal with, so I give him a guarantee that we will at least consider his suggestion during the debates. I cannot promise him that a commitment will be given instantaneously because there are resource implications, but I do not dispute the evidential basis for his assertion—unlike the last one made from the Opposition Benches.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend is right to say that this debate should be rooted in fact and evidence-based, to use his favourite phrase. Can he confirm, with reference to the consultation that took place earlier on the main outline of the Bill, that of the 798 responses received, 788 were opposed to the National Offender Management Service proposals in so far as they affect the so-called contestability of the probation service?

John Reid: My hon. Friend insinuates that there is a mass of objections to the Bill—

David Taylor: There is.

John Reid: Well, let me give him some of the quotations from the responses. The Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations said:

I could also mention the Social Market Foundation and the CBI, as well as Paul Cavadino, the chief executive of NACRO—the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders—who is not normally associated with privateers or the right wing. He said that

I could go on by citing Turning Point and any number of other organisations. Last week, for example, I talked to young offenders at the Prince’s Trust about what the voluntary sector has to offer.

My hon. Friend suggests that there is a mass lobby against the Bill, and we all know that some oppose it. We have all received communications from people, but we should not underestimate the strength of support for the proposals across the charitable and voluntary sector and from those concerned with the rehabilitation of offenders. There is a great groundswell of support.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): The Home Secretary may not have the figures in front of him, but perhaps the Minister who winds up the debate will be able to tell the House how many people in prison are detected as using illegal drugs each year. The figure used to be about 20,000. Secondly, is it still true that every week 2,000 people commit a serious criminal offence—one for which, if caught and convicted, they could be sent to jail for six months or more—for the first time?

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John Reid: I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman with that information. On drug use in prison, my memory is that we have reduced the figure from 24 per cent. to around 12 per cent., but I may be wrong. I will certainly write to him on that and the other point that he raises.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): I noted what my right hon. Friend said about the various organisations that sing the praises of the Bill. Could it be because they stand to gain from it? Why are the proposals predicated on competition when, as a Member representing a Scottish constituency, he knows full well that the Scottish model is based on inter-agency co-operation? What does he find distasteful about that model, if he does so find it?

John Reid: On the Scottish model, first, I have no vote in what the Scots decide. Secondly, from time immemorial, the Scots have had a completely different legal system, based on Roman law rather than case precedent. Thirdly, I do not always agree that the Scottish Executive choose the best way even for Scottish conditions. Laying those points aside, my hon. Friend’s main point is whether the proposals are based on contestability or partnership. The truth is that they are based on both, because we are looking for a partnership not only with organisations that are seeking a profit, but voluntary and charitable organisations, many of whom do not seek a profit but bring a particular expertise to particular areas. Now that my hon. Friend is back, may I say that we have missed him? We have missed the whips and the stings that he brings to harnessing the Government in partnership or contestability, depending on how one views it. If my hon. Friend bears with me on this, he will see that I am trying to supplement the probation service by releasing the energies of other sectors in support of what probation is trying to do—not to replace it or just introduce contestability.

Several hon. Members rose—

John Reid: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman who speaks for the Welsh nationalists, but then I want to make some progress before coming back to my hon. Friends.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I am obliged to the Home Secretary. Given what he said about contestability a few moments ago, will he offer a definition and explain how it differs from part-privatisation? May I also ask him why public sector workers in the prison service are unable to compete for some of this work?

John Reid: On the hon. Gentleman’s second question, the answer is that they do and sometimes very successfully. One of the great things about introducing a degree of contestability is that the performance of the public sector often improves sufficiently for it to start winning, even against competition. As to privatisation, let me give the hon. Gentleman two examples. The Prince’s Trust is not a for-profit organisation and neither are some of the voluntary organisations that I read out earlier. It cannot be regarded merely as opening probation up to private concerns, some of which make a profit,
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because there are voluntary and charitable concerns as well. I do not believe that those operating with some effect through the public sector probation service have anything to fear from this. Indeed, in the long run, they will have seen their efforts supplemented by it.

Several hon. Members rose—

John Reid: If I can make a little progress, I shall come back to hon. Members again later. I also have to make some progress because I am under your careful eye, Mr. Speaker.

I was talking about the fact that protection, punishment and deterrence are no use without rehabilitation and that rehabilitation ought to be a continuum—in other words, from inside to outside of prison. That is why the supervision of offenders in the community after they leave jail is so important. It must be aimed ultimately at reducing crime, which is one of the main benchmarks of our success, reducing reoffending and thereby protecting the public.

It is right that we have invested heavily in this area. The probation service has received a 40 per cent. increase in the last five years and something like £900 million more has been spent on the probation service this year. As I said, we are talking about a real-terms increase of 40 per cent. What we are doing has not been done against the background of any starvation of resources for the probation service. No one should believe that that is the case. Having said that, it is also right to point out that there has been a great deal of improvement in the results, so we should not believe that no progress has been made in probation. More than 50,000 offenders completed unpaid work in the community this year, which is an increase of 30 per cent. on two years ago. I also mentioned a fourfold increase in teaching basic skills this year and five times more offenders being accredited with offending behaviour programmes.

There is, however, a limit to the progress made and, as hon. Members have pointed out in today’s discussion, that limit that has remained with some obstinacy. The truth of the matter is that, regardless of the colour of the Government—and almost regardless of the amount of resources—the reoffending rate has stayed obstinately high in recent decades. About 60 per cent. of offenders go on to commit another crime within two years and Members will know of cases where dangerous offenders have been poorly supervised. Let me say this in simple terms. That is not a tolerable position to continue with. It does not help offenders and, more importantly, it is a poor deal for communities and for the vast majority of hard-working, law-abiding citizens whom we seek to protect.

That is the main purpose behind the Bill.

The failure to reduce the reoffending rate cannot be explained away simply by blaming a lack of resources. As I have said, the budget has increased by 40 per cent. in five years to more than £900 million—a record. Although I concede that case loads have risen, the amount spent per offender has gone up. In addition, we have increased probation staff by 5,000 since 2001. Indeed, we have increased probation staff by 50 per cent. since 1997, while case loads have increased by 30 per cent. We have made a great deal of investment over the past 10 years.

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David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Home Secretary agree that the kind of work that he has just outlined to deal with offenders is best based at a very local level? Has he heard from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), about the success of the prolific offender management scheme, which he helped to launch some two years ago in Brighton and Hove? How will the move towards a more regional organisation for managing offenders in the community help in dealing with those very local problems, which is where the success is often found?

John Reid: I agree that much of such work is better commissioned locally, but that is not the question. The question is whether it should be provided only by a local monopoly. We are creating the circumstances whereby it can be commissioned locally, but its commissioning will not automatically depend on an existing local monopoly, which will both commission and provide the service that the commissioners are commissioning. We are opening it up. In some cases, it will not be provided locally; it will be provided in a larger area. However, for the foreseeable future—for the next several years—the specific management of offenders, particularly serious ones, as opposed to intervention to provide educational programmes, will be done by the probation service. We will try to make the changes in stages, so that we open up and break the monopoly in a cautious fashion that relies either on the best of the existing probation services or on giving assistance to improve them to provide offender management.

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): No one would deny that my right hon. Friend and his predecessors have invested very substantially in the probation service or, indeed, that they have fully consulted members of the probation services, not least the union that represents probation officers, which is based in my constituency, but does he not share my concern that it has been impossible to get more support for these reforms among probation officers? Does he not see any way in which it would be possible to proceed on the basis of a greater consensus?

John Reid: Of course I want the maximum support from our probation service and our probation officers. As I was going on to say, I understand that there is nothing as painful as the birth of a new idea. There is nothing as difficult as change, especially when it is intended to create a partnership not only with those who might help but others who might do part of the job better in some circumstances. Therefore, we ought to have at the back of our minds our gratitude for those who work in the probation service for all that they do. We also ought to say to the public that there is no way in which we can have a no-risk life. There is no position where we can promise anyone that there will be no risk. Having said that, our primary concern must be the protection of the public.

The fact that we have thrown money and various improvements at the issue in recent years and still had an obstinately high—60 per cent.—reoffending rate suggests that we at least ought to be open to asking how we do this better on the back of our present probation service, by supplementing its effort and by
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addressing the complexity of some of these problems with a comprehensive range of complex provisions, drawn not only from the private sector, but from the voluntary sector and the charitable sector, as well as our public sector.

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): The Home Secretary has set the yardstick for judging the success of the Bill: a drop in the stubborn and wholly unacceptable reoffending rate. The Government’s case is that increasing competition will achieve just that, but given that probation boards already subcontract, in effect, 2 to 3 per cent. of their budgets to the private and voluntary sector, what hard evidence is there from that outsourcing to support the Government’s case?

John Reid: First, this is not just a matter of competition. It is a matter of allowing ourselves the assistance of a diverse range of providers, with expertise that is particular to particular areas and that could help—in other words, a panoply or reservoir of people who can assist in trying to reduce reoffending. Secondly, I think that the hon. Gentleman is asking me, what evidence is there that the present position, which is voluntary—opening up to bringing in the voluntary, the charitable or the private sector—is bound to be less successful than the Bill? The truth of the matter is that, at the moment, the rate of giving access to other than the publicly provided probation service is very low indeed, although it is not so low as to mean that the Bill is a change in principle.

In the prison and probation service, about 25 per cent. of the services are already provided from other than the public sector, so there is no great step in principle in the Bill. Within that, however, the figure is very low as regards the local probation boards themselves. The total amount of non-public-sector provision in the probation service has fallen in the past few years from a height of about 5 per cent. to the present 2 or 3 per cent. That is since we withdrew the central targets. The element that has been commissioned from outside the public sector has largely been commissioned by central Government. That should not surprise us. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that it is more than 200 years since one political economist wrote of the tendency of monopolies to preserve their own monopoly. That is true in all walks of life. We are trying to provide the legal framework that allows others to come into that partnership.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Although many of us will have good examples of the probation service working—indeed, we have many probation officers in our constituency parties to remind us of how effective they are—may I give the Home Secretary an example of an incident that occurred today in my office? An individual phoned about a mentally ill prisoner who has been released early—no doubt because there is pressure on places. The person made contact with us because the ex-prisoner’s mother used to live in Birkenhead. The prisoner is homeless. We phoned the probation service and were told that not much could be done. We asked what actions would be taken. The probation service thought that there would not be much joy before Christmas. Although we are mindful of the probation service working well, when he is crafting the new reforms, will he make sure that, when they are complete, the buck stops on somebody’s desk and action has to be taken in circumstances such as those?

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John Reid: That is one of the reasons we are trying to carry the Bill forward and institute some reforms.

May I make a little progress? We have put in a great deal of resources and we have increased the number of staff considerably. We have put in 40 per cent. more money—£900 million this year. Earlier, I may have said £900 million additionally this year. I correct myself if I did. It is not quite as much as that, but it is a huge increase. There has also been a huge increase in effort. I would like to pay tribute to the probation service’s dedication and to its improved performance. Its effort means, for instance, that in 90 per cent. of breaches, enforcement action is swiftly taken. That is down to some of the improvements that have been made.

We have increased resources and effort, but the situation is still not good enough. No one can just accept what we have with any degree of complacency or fatalism. We need to countenance reform, and that is what the Bill is about—the reoffending rate does not have to stay this way. The measures in the Bill are urgently needed. They remedy problems that for far too long have been allowed to erode confidence in both the justice system and, in many ways, the probation system. They supplement the investment and effort with reform and with new resources being opened up from the private, charitable and voluntary sectors.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab) rose—

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab) rose—

John Reid: I will try to make a little progress, but I will give way later.

I accept that some of the measures in the Bill require substantial reform for probation officers and that change is never easy. Some of the measures might be unpopular with those who have to implement them, but it would not be the first time that that has happened when we are trying to carry through reform in the public services. We need a debate about how to work together to protect the public, not one based on an outdated, a priori, dogma concerning inputs and who delivers them. Good probation services and good probation officers have nothing to fear.

Let us also be truthful about the fact that there is no simple solution. The causes of reoffending are hugely varied and multiple, which is why our response must be equally comprehensive, and capable of being tailored to particular circumstances. They cannot be tackled adequately by any one agency alone and they certainly cannot be preserved due to a matter of dogma when there is the opportunity to tackle some of the obstinate reoffending rates that have not changed. There is no room for monopolies. We need a broad coalition of effort that allows us to tap the reservoir of capabilities inside and outside the public sector to address this major problem.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

John Reid: Before the hon. Gentleman intervenes, may I just say to him that

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