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11 Dec 2006 : Column 592

Several hon. Members rose—

John Reid: Those were the explicit words of the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the Leader of the Opposition. He has supported this all the way—apparently until tonight. On that note, I will give way to an Opposition Member.

Bob Spink: The Home Secretary is being very generous. I was wondering why I agreed so much with the statement that he just read out. I hope that this intervention will help him. Does he recall telling the House that young black men are about five times more likely to be in prison than young white men? We therefore need to tackle that problem by ensuring that no prejudice at any point in the criminal justice system causes that, and that young black men have the same life chances and opportunities as others in the community. Will he tell the House which agencies could focus on the problem, and how we can find a solution to it?

John Reid: We are concentrating our minds on that, for the very reason that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), is working with the Commission for Racial Equality on this matter. One of the benefits of opening up to the voluntary sector and charitable partnerships is that many of them have built up specialisations, expertise, a history and relationships in tackling some of these problems.

Several hon. Members rose—

John Reid: I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) and then I will make some more progress.

Dr. Palmer: My right hon. Friend is persuading me that there is an issue to be dealt with and that we should give the Bill its Second Reading. Is he willing to meet a small group of my constituents who have concerns about possible fragmentation, not all of which have emerged in the national debate up to now?

John Reid: I am glad that my speech is persuading some of my hon. Friends. This weekend some of the voluntary organisations wrote to hon. Members and we know from the response that that persuaded some of my colleagues. I am glad about that, because I do not think that there is no ground for debate. The topic is a serious one that people approach in a serious fashion and I think that people are prepared to be persuaded, as I am by one or two of the comments that have been made. We will consider such points as the Bill proceeds. I say to my hon. Friends that if we put the protection of hard-working people first, which requires the reduction of reoffending, and we put in considerably more resources and considerably more effort, it is not open to us to say that we will not consider improving and reforming the way in which we deliver the service. That is what we ought to do.

More embarrassing is the Opposition parties’ apparent opposition to the Bill. I do not know how the Liberal party can countenance opposing an extension to bring in the voluntary and charitable sectors to assist
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the public sector, or how the Conservatives can oppose the Bill, in view of what the Leader of the Opposition wrote in The Guardian, no less, just beneath Polly Toynbee’s column. The right hon. Gentleman wrote:

Subsequently, on BBC “Breakfast”—after discussion with Polly, no doubt—he said,

It is beyond me to understand how the Opposition can contemplate voting against the Bill’s Second Reading tonight. They are facing different ways to different audiences.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Paul Farrelly: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

John Reid: Let me make a little progress. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) has been very patient.

It seems to me to be sensible to provide greater flexibility. We need to be able to commission services across geographical and organisational boundaries. Although, of course, we want to look to local commissioning, it may be sensible to commission on a wider geographical basis for some purposes. Some programmes currently delivered in prison could also be delivered across the prison gate, thus helping to bridge the gap between custody and the community. We need an element of choice to ensure that we have the best provider for the job and to maintain the pressure on existing providers to continue to improve.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way on that point?

John Reid: I will, if my hon. Friend lets me make a little progress, but I have two hon. Members lined up to intervene.

The Secretary of State, not the probation boards, will be responsible for ensuring service provision by entering into contracts with the public, private or voluntary sectors. With that burden lifted, the public sector can play to its strengths while others play to theirs. Consequently, local probation boards will be replaced by probation trusts as the public sector provider. Trusts will employ their own chief executive and will act with greater independence.

A few myths have been raised tonight to which I may return, but at this stage, I shall let in some hon. Members who have been waiting some time to intervene.

Martin Salter: Does the Home Secretary accept that it is not what is written in Polly Toynbee’s column that worries us, but the track record of some of the private security companies that are seeking to take over parts of the probation service? That is what is worrying Labour Members and Members who are traditionally supportive
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of the Home Office team. Is he happy to see the American firm Kalyx, whose appalling management of Harmondsworth detention centre has been roundly condemned by Her Majesty’s inspector of prisons, or Group 4, which has consistently failed to tag dangerous offenders properly, taking over part of the management of offenders in the community?

John Reid: If my hon. Friend is suggesting that the way to avoid having disturbances or problems in prisons, or shoddy provision of prison and probation services, is to put such services entirely in the public sector, he is ignoring the events at Lincoln prison in 2002, Wealstun prison in 2003 and Stoke Heath prison earlier this year, and the reports on Pentonville prison, Leicester and Belmarsh, all of which are in the public sector. That merely tells all of us that, whoever runs the prisons or the probation services, mistakes will be made and the highest quality has to be demanded. Neither the public nor the private sector has a monopoly on virtue, or the lack of it. Before we start our debate, I ask that we approach the subject without that dogmatic division. We should ask, “How we can best get the outcomes?” and “How do we best put together the services available to us in the public, private and charitable and voluntary sectors to achieve those outcomes?”

Several hon. Members rose—

John Reid: I will give way to the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), and then to my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon), and for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), but after that, I shall have to finish my remarks rapidly.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Is the Home Secretary aware that, several years ago, the Select Committee on Home Affairs produced a report on the alternatives to prison services? Three Home Secretaries later, the prison population is at record levels. Will the Bill take into account the Committee’s recommendations, which were decided unanimously, on a cross-party basis? They would have resulted in a reduction in our prison population, which is the largest in Europe. In particular, will the Bill consider the concept of weekend prisons, which, in Finland, have resulted in the prison population being almost halved?

John Reid: Of course we try to bear in mind all contributions, particularly—and most importantly, I would think—those from the Home Affairs Committee. In the past, I have had to remind hon. Members that we ought to be careful with international statistics. If we compare the statistics for the number of prisoners per 100,000 of the population, we see that the figure is very high; for England and Wales, it is 142, compared to 96 in Germany, Italy and so on. However, the number is very low compared to that in the United States, where the figure is 726. If we ask a different question—what the prison population is, relative to the number of recorded crimes—our figures are very low, even when compared to those for Europe. We have 12 people in prison per recorded crime. The European average is 17, but in Ireland it is 35, in Spain it is 46, and in Sweden, it is only 5. Of course, that indicates that there could be a number of variables, including the level of criminality
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and the way in which crime is recorded. Things are not as easy as stating one simple fact, and then claiming that our prison population is out of all proportion to every other country’s—and it is not, depending on the statistics that are available.

Mrs. Dunwoody: The Home Secretary has twice used the word “monopoly” in relation to the professional performance of a trained official. I would like to hear him give some factual basis for the ideas that are to be introduced in the Bill. Frankly, I would like to know of any system in the world that can rely on the mix that he proposes, and that can produce a more effective probation service than ours, because many of us find the idea almost impossible to believe.

John Reid: The simple fact that we are considering—and it is substantiated by all the evidence that we have—is our reoffending rate. It is higher than that for any other country in a comparable situation of which I am aware, and that is despite our having increased staff by 50 per cent. in 10 years, having increased resources by 40 per cent. in five years, and having increased the number of people working in the probation service by 5,000. We are suggesting that, cautiously, over a period of time, we should ask ourselves whether it would be right to try gradually to open up the intervention programmes—not, in the first instance, offender management programmes, but the programmes for re-education and so on—to those with expertise in dealing with reoffenders from the charitable, private and voluntary sectors. It would be a brave person who claimed that the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders did not have any experience from which we could benefit. It would not be sensible to tell the Prince’s Trust that it does not have anything to teach us about rehabilitating young offenders, as it has done so very successfully in many cases. We want to involve organisations from the voluntary and charitable sector, but we want to do so gradually. I have already said that for the foreseeable future—the next two or three years—the management and supervision of offenders will be undertaken by the probation service. We have adopted a gradual approach in an effort to tackle a very obstinate problem indeed, as the evidence suggests that to do otherwise by throwing money and staff at the problem does not improve the position.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): I endorse my right hon. Friend’s comments about the creativity and flexibility of the voluntary sector. In my own constituency, Community Service Volunteers has worked effectively with long-term, persistent offenders, with a positive success rate of over 90 per cent, so I certainly welcome a greater role for that organisation in the management of offenders. Many people, including some of my hon. Friends, are concerned about the monitoring and regulation of the training and skills offered by the new providers. Will my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that that will be in place so that organisations that fail to provide services do not remain in the system?

John Reid: Absolutely. I hope that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members will be reassured to learn that we do not intend to get rid of the inspection regimes or amend them significantly. They will stay the same.
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Having inherited a plan to amalgamate the inspection regimes for prison and probation, one of the first things that I did in my early months in post was to acknowledge opposition to that plan and allow the continued separation of those inspection regimes, as long as they provide a continuum in their programme of work. I hope that that provides the reassurance that my hon. Friend seeks: there has not been any attempt to diminish the effectiveness of the inspection regimes, and standards will be maintained. If that is not the case in any given area, that will be made public.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab) rose—

John Reid: I will give way to my right hon. Friend, but then I wish to make progress.

Mr. Howarth: Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is growing evidence from the education field that former military personnel who deal with disaffected young people in schemes similar to day release from school have achieved success? Organisations such as Skill Force, with which he will be familiar from his days at the Ministry of Defence, and the advanced skills academy in Liverpool, which is run by former military personnel and which I visited last Friday, command more respect from many young people as methods of dealing with offenders than certain other organisations.

John Reid: I am familiar with some of those courses as a constituency MP and as Armed Forces Minister and Secretary of State for Defence. My right hon. Friend is quite right, but that is only one area in which we have prohibited incorporation or partnership. We want to make a common effort to tackle the problem, and try to open up the system so that there is some competition. We will not do so in the first instance in offender management—we envisage that that will remain a publicly run service—but there is a vast reservoir of talent in the voluntary and charitable sectors. I hope that such a reservoir will develop in the private sector, as it can provide courses and education, as well as advice on relationships, mentoring and role models, that can be used to supplement the efforts of the probation service. May I tell my hon. Friends that I realise that that can be portrayed all too easily as diminishing the efforts, energy and professionalism of the probation service? It is not meant to do that. It is meant to supplement those efforts by bringing in the talents of people out there. In many ways it represents a return to the roots of the probation service and the values of our party, by bringing people in from the voluntary sector for the purpose of self-help.

I must make progress and draw my remarks to a conclusion. By being courteous to Members, I am being discourteous to my Opposition counterpart in the time that I have taken.

To sum up, although the Bill contains a range of measures, the main idea is to liberate and harness in partnership the talents of those in the voluntary, the charitable and the private sectors who can contribute to partnering our public sector probation service in tackling rehabilitation and reducing reoffending. Government investment will continue. We will not rush the reforms in overnight. We want a measured
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approach, not because of objections from colleagues, but because it is sensible to take a measured approach that balances the obvious need for urgent improvements with the system’s ability to cope with that change.

The Bill is the product of a hard look at current systems. I recognise that it means taking tough choices, especially for those who work in our probation service, but it brings the probation service into a new world, where we supplement the efforts of our traditional probation service with the talents and expertise of the voluntary and charitable sectors. That is vital to our work in cutting crime, reducing reoffending and protecting the public. That is the primary purpose of the Bill. I commend it to the House.

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I should inform the House that Mr. Speaker has not selected the reasoned amendment in the name of the Liberal Democrats.

4.37 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I begin by expressing my apologies on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), the shadow Secretary of State, for his unavoidable absence this afternoon. Secondly, I declare an interest as a member of the Bar, although my practice is entirely at the civil Bar. However, I am a Crown court recorder and in that capacity make good use of the services of the probation service, which is very much the subject of the Bill.

The Government have been thrashing about this area of public policy for some years. They have been doing so without achieving anything of value in terms of crime reduction or reduction in the amount of repeat crime committed by offenders released from custody or on community sentences. They have failed to produce from the criminal justice system people who complete their sentences better able to play a worthwhile part in the life of our country, fathers who look after their families—most crime is committed by men—citizens and taxpayers able to take responsibility for themselves, for their dependants, and for their actions and decisions, or people aware of their responsibility towards others for how they behave.

It is worth noting that in the 100 years before the Government came to office in 1997, only 48 Bills to do with criminal justice were enacted. There were about 15 in the century before that. This is, if not the 60th Bill, very nearly the 60th to come before Parliament since 1997 purporting to be an answer to the actual and perceived wrongs in the criminal justice system. Do our constituents feel any safer as a result of this avalanche of legislation, and are they in fact any safer? Do they believe the Government have done anything for them in a practical and effective way? The answer to all those questions is no.

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