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It is surely no longer controversial to say that the criminal justice system in the widest sense of that phrase is in a parlous state. Those who work in the
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police, the courts, the probation service, the parole system and the prison service, and victims of crime as well all suffer from low morale and from inadequate political leadership and poor strategic management from Ministers in the Home Office and the Department for Constitutional Affairs.

Over the past decade we have seen this Government repeat the classic error found in organisations in crisis led by people in a hurry with no sense of direction: they have fallen into the habit of reinforcing failure and of issuing orders followed by counter-orders and then disorder. “Do anything rather than do what’s right, but make sure you get a headline” is the Department’s motto. If they have any claim to fame or notoriety, it is for their insatiable appetite for passing Bill after Bill and for claiming that each one is the flagship that will lead to the ending of all that is wrong with whatever the various Home Secretaries have said is wrong. Enacting a new statute is not the same as implementing the provisions in it, and still less the same as implementing a considered policy. Far too often, we have seen other flagships launched. Take the Criminal Justice Act 2003—that particular year’s Ark Royal of the Home Office fleet—which before long was shown in large part to be no more than copy for headline writers. It is full of holes, many of which were put there by the Government as they failed to bring its provisions into force or repealed them before implementation or afterwards through yet more legislation.

There has been a mad and thoughtless rush to legislate in order to give the impression of command, but there has been none of the necessary thinking, preparation, consultation or staff work to test ideas, many of which should have been tested to destruction, to see what is appropriate or will work in a genuinely practical way. The Government confuse noise with authority, movement with productivity and headlines with delivery. This Bill is no different.

Bob Spink: Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that one of the more sustainable solutions to recidivism would be the provision of more full-time accommodation places for drug rehabilitation in the community?

Mr. Garnier: Yes, I do.

In early 2005, the Government introduced in another place a Bill that bore many similarities to this Bill. Mercifully, the general election intervened before the then Home Secretary could do more damage to the supervisory service than he and his predecessors had already achieved through their constant fidgeting with the probation service, the parole system and the community sentencing regime. Most of us who wish to keep some hold on our sanity have stopped trying to count the times that the Government have uprooted the management and organisation of the probation service since they came into office. They have had no positive effect on morale, on performance or on recruitment and retention of probation staff; indeed, quite the opposite.

In April 2001, the probation service was restructured to create a national probation service with 42 local probation boards. Less than three years later, in January 2004, the Home Secretary announced the merger of the Prison Service and the probation service to form the still uncompleted National Offender Management Service,
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or NOMS—now more commonly known as “Nightmare on Marsham Street”. In October 2005, the Home Office published its consultation document, “Restructuring Probation to Reduce Reoffending”. I appreciate that the expression, “Government consultation”, is now an oxymoron, but this proves it beyond all reasonable doubt: they received 748 submissions but only 10 were in favour of the Government’s restructuring plan.

Further disruption will do nothing to drive up standards and to improve operation. On the contrary, reforms to any organisation need time to bed in. The probation service is still reeling from the Government’s last shake up. It is surprising to no one except the Government that the London probation service, for example, is 150 staff below establishment and that the service nationally is 1,000 staff short.

The Government are setting up the probation service to fail. They need to justify their shift of policy, which was done for intellectually and politically dishonest reasons and which is contrary to the Labour party’s long-held opinion on the contracting out or privatisation of aspects of the justice system. They want to shed responsibility for their own failure to lead and to manage, and they want to get the cost of offender supervision off the Treasury’s books. By making it increasingly difficult for the probation service to operate as an agency of justice, by reorganising it to death, by imposing on it and, for that matter, on the Prison Service, an expensive and pointless bureaucracy—NOMS—whose own staff have little idea of what they are employed to do, the Government are making it dysfunctional. They are blaming it for failures to supervise repeat offenders and to prevent the crimes that have led to such terrible tragedies for many families throughout the country, when it is the Government who have put their boot—or is it their clunking fist?—on to the probation service’s windpipe.

So keen is the Home Secretary to denigrate the probation service before the very people who are most in need of supervision that in November he went to Wormwood Scrubs to make a speech about its inadequacies to an audience of inmates. For this Home Secretary, leadership means trashing the people who are doing their best in difficult circumstances in front of the very people—criminals—whom he expects those people to supervise. Lions and donkeys come to mind. The Home Secretary is the latest manifestation of the Ratner school of management.

The Government are also trying to hide their blushes behind invented new Labour words such as “contestability”. Some, like the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), who is in his place and with whom I shared a platform, together with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), at the National Association of Probation Officers annual conference in Eastbourne this October, have maintained their allegiance to the tenets of the Labour party, which opposed, as a matter of principle, contracting out the supervisory work of the probation service at any time, but even more vehemently in the service’s centenary year.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): I am interested that the hon. and learned Gentleman is considering the principles of privatisation. Has he now decided that it was wrong to introduce privatisation into the Prison Service, as his party did?

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Mr. Garnier: No. I was discussing the Labour party’s principles, to which I do not adhere, but I salute the hon. Gentleman for maintaining his allegiance to the principles of the party to which he belongs but from which others appear to have moved away.

The Liberal Democrats, too, judging from the comments of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam in Eastbourne and from their amendment on the Order Paper, have a rooted aversion to contracting out or the provision of such services by non-state organisations. We have no such objection. We support opening up the supervision of offenders to non-state providers, just as we championed, in the teeth of Labour protests, setting up privately run prisons. The public service has no monopoly on the public service ethos, nor should it disparage private sector disciplines.

However, the manner in which the Government have set about mending what they have broken is wrong headed, counter-productive, unnecessary and incompetent. The Opposition want rigorous and effective supervision of those sentenced to community sentences. We want the effective management of offenders from end to end, as the Government claim that they want. We want judges and magistrates to be provided with accurate and relevant pre-sentence reports in good time. We want the public’s confidence in community sentencing to grow rather than worsen. We want those subject to drug rehabilitation requirements, unpaid work requirements, activity requirements, curfews, residence requirements, alcohol treatment requirements or attendance centre requirements imposed under community orders to be positively supervised and encouraged to comply and reform. However, if the Government so manage the system that probation staff leave the service or feel undervalued and cannot perform to the standard that we have a right to expect, the public’s confidence in non-custodial sentences will diminish even further.

Far too many offenders not only breach the terms of their community sentences but commit further offences—on an industrial scale. I do not blame the people who work in the probation service for that, although, of course, every large organisation contains variation in calibre. However, it is unreasonable, as the Government publicly demand but privately do not believe, to expect offenders on community punishments or those released from prison on licence or on parole to be under the 24-hour-a-day control of the probation service.

When, as happened 98 times in the past two years, a serious crime such as murder is committed by an offender on licence, the Government’s reaction is to blame someone else—indeed anyone else—but never to analyse or explain why the probation service is unable to guarantee 24-hour-a-day supervision. The Government’s cutting of face-to-face Parole Board interviews and requiring it to read tick-box assessments on long-term and violent criminals is their doing and no one else’s.

The supervisory services need encouragement, support and leadership. In our view, they also need the assistance of the private and third sectors. We want better public protection, not more Government abdication. Early release of dangerous criminals has gone too far, and the Government should take responsibility.

We have no political or philosophical objection to the private or third sectors carrying out the supervisory
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services that are currently and exclusively carried out by the probation service. There are many examples of excellent work, which assists in rehabilitating offenders, in privately run prisons—and in the Prison Service, as I know from visiting many prisons and young offenders institutions in the past 12 months.

There are many examples of charities and faith-based groups, large and small, working with offenders in and outside prison, as I know from having met the people who work in them and with offenders and ex-offenders in all parts of the country. They should be encouraged. Those non-state organisations gain their strength and understanding of the issues and the individuals with whom they have to deal from the localities where they operate. They will not be assisted by the imposition of a Whitehall-directed bureaucracy called the offender management service, whose chief executive, under the direct control of the Home Secretary, will tell regional offender managers how and what to commission from probation trusts, which are answerable to those up the chain of command rather than accountable to local people. They know how many prison spaces and what kinds of supervision, rehabilitation, education and training are needed in their localities, and will be far more responsive than central or regional officials.

In this Bill, we see a Government addicted to control and centrally devised models, fascinated by tinkering and wholly lacking any understanding of human nature or the need for services that do things for the public rather than to them. Why will the Prison Service, its personnel and buildings be better run by NOMS than by a dedicated director of the Prison Service with well trained and professional staff?

Why will offenders be better supervised by NOMS, ROMs and probation trusts micro-managed from the Home Office than by locally commissioned and provided services, be they in the public, private or not-for-profit sector? We do not know, because the Government do not know. What evidence proves the Government’s policy of micro-management is right and will work? Where is the evidence to show that this Government’s legislative equivalent of St. Vitus’ dance will add to public safety or public confidence and improve offender supervision? We do not know, and they do not either.

The Government are in trouble; they have lost their way and have absolutely no idea what they are supposed to be doing. However, all is not lost—even this side of the general election. The official Opposition are here to help. We will improve the Bill in Committee and on Report; we will make the provision of the necessary supervisory services more relevant to the needs of the public and offenders; we will ensure that the probation service in the public sector and the other providers from the private and not-for-profit sectors work together as a complementary whole for the public good.

We will ensure that the public’s needs are served through local participation and local commissioning and that the sterile battle involving those who believe that public services can be provided only by state organisations directed from Whitehall by “here today,
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gone tomorrow” Ministers, and those who believe that the private sector is the work of the devil, is finally and usefully brought to an end.

To that end, my party and its supporters in and out of Parliament will harry, chase, chivvy and argue with this desperate Government to ensure that the Bill delivers solutions that reflect and respond to, rather than ignore, the public’s needs and expectations. Our support for the Bill tonight is not open-ended, but conditional on the Government’s responding to us and acknowledging where the public good lies. If they work with us and improve the Bill, the Government will have a new regime for the supervision of offenders that works. If they ignore us, we will, with others who share our aims, defeat this Bill on Third Reading and in another place.

The Government have a choice; I suggest that they make the right one.

4.52 pm

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): It will be difficult to follow the farrago of nonsense that we have just heard; it is difficult even to understand its conclusions. I took it to mean, “We don’t like the Bill; we are embarrassed by it because of our support for the voluntary sector. We are not going to oppose it tonight,”—given the number of Members on the Conservative Benches, it would never have been a vigorous opposition—“but we will probably vote against it later.”

What sense can we make of that? I cannot even follow the speed at which the hon. and learned Gentleman delivered his speech. It precluded me from properly writing my own speech, a brilliant and incisive demolition of the Government’s arguments. I will find it difficult to read, as it has been written down at such speed.

I am not happy with the notion, although it is fairly typical of our approach to government, of getting bright ideas from the team of geniuses who form a kind of nimbus around the Prime Minister. In this case, one such genius, Mr. Carter—now Lord Carter—an expert in health service privatisation had the bright ideas. He said that there should be a coherent structure of offender management, which is a good idea, nominated offender managements, another good idea, and a follow-through from prison to the probation service, an excellent idea. Incidentally, I do not see why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has not followed the Scottish precedent and required statutory co-operation between the prisons and the probation service in the Bill. That would be an excellent development of Lord Carter’s original idea.

However, with the good ideas came the bad one of contestability, which seems more important in the eyes of my right hon. Friend and the Government who are pursuing the issue than community, caring and co-operation—the principles on which the probation service currently runs.

Contestability, in my view, means bringing in the private sector. The private sector will no doubt be pushing the voluntary sector ahead of it as protective cover, but this is really about making profits from a caring service, and I do not think we should embark on that. My hon. Friends and I have organised half a
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dozen debates in Westminster Hall—I think I was responsible for two of them—in which, interestingly, no one spoke in favour of contestability except the junior Ministers who replied. The junior Minister replying to the last debate was kind enough to approach me privately at the end. She said “I have only two words to say to you, Austin.” I thought she was going to say “You’re right”, but the two words were an invitation to go forth and multiply. I thought that that was possibly the essence of the Government’s case.

No satisfactory case has been made in the submissions. Of the 748 received, only 10 were in favour of the measure. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary quoted lovingly from those 10, but did not quote at all from the 738 that were against it. I do not know where the pressure is coming from. Perhaps it represents—I hope that it does—a Machiavellian desire to embarrass the Conservative party, given its adherence to the voluntary sector. The Conservatives are going to use the voluntary sector to solve all social problems, including those of the health service, education, caring and community. They are going to thrust it forward in order to save money. Perhaps our objective is to nail them to their own ambiguities, a very difficult anatomical feat to perform. I can think of no other explanation.

Could it be that there is pressure from the private sector, from the big correction companies that want to muscle in on the market? Could it be that it is merely a question of prejudice on the part of my right hon. and hon. Friends in favour of the private sector against the public sector? I cannot see how a service that is about rehabilitation and caring for people would be run better for profit than for human motives, such as a desire to improve, help, support and sustain.

No business case has been made. The regulatory impact assessment said that there would be savings of between 3 and 8.5 per cent., but there was no indication of how the figures were arrived at. The assessment also spoke of savings of £625 million. How are those savings to be made, other than by cuts in the numbers and organisation of the service? There has been no rational argument, and there is no rational evidence, that the private sector can run the service better, and virtually no statistics have been offered. The few that have been offered have been disproved.

In the other place, my noble Friend Lady Scotland said that the system was failing because 60 per cent. of people were reoffending. It turns out that 66 per cent. are reoffending on leaving prison and 53 per cent. are reoffending after being sentenced to community service. But the reoffending rate among those under the management of the probation service includes offences committed before the original sentence. If those are taken into account—and they cannot be part of redemption, can they?—the figure is only 44 per cent.

Paul Farrelly: We all share the Home Secretary’s concern to improve reoffending rates, but does my hon. Friend share my concern that in this debate we seem to be placing the blame for reoffending solely and squarely on the probation service, and that we are perhaps not seeing it as a consequence and symptom of our approach to prisons in their entirety? Does he also share my concern that, like my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), I
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cannot see in these measures any evidence-based delivery mechanism that will improve reoffending rates by imposing an arbitrary level of contracting out on a service such as the probation service?

Mr. Mitchell: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I only wish I had been able to include a list of services while writing my speech during the fast and gabbled contribution from the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman. It is wrong to create, as we have been doing, a climate of fear by suggesting that we are releasing psychologically disturbed people who then go out and kill other people, and that offenders are not being properly looked after and sustained by the probation service and that the result is that they will reoffend yet again. That implies that the streets are thronging with people who are intent on murder, burglary and reoffending and that the redemption services, the reform services and the probation service are not achieving anything. We are in a sense attacking the probation service by creating a climate of fear. That is wrong, because the service is working well.

It is a service that was reformed only four years ago—in 2001, when we developed the national probation service. It is meeting all its targets; I will not go through the long list of them, but it has 30 targets and they are all being achieved in substantial part. That case has been made by the relevant trade union. If there are failures in the service, they are because the service is still undermanned despite the increase in numbers that there has been, and underpaid, and because it has had too much pressure put on it, and too many duties given to it, it has been unable to cope in the fully effective fashion—the 100 per cent.-effective fashion—that we would want. Therefore, the failures are problems to do with strain and limited resources.

In view of that record, the attitude should be, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I do not think that Ministers are saying that it is broke—I hope that they are not saying that. They are certainly not saying that any improvement can be effected by bringing in the private sector or the voluntary sector. I agree that we can all learn from the voluntary sector. It has been said that we can learn from the Prince’s Trust, and that is absolutely right; it might have a contribution to make. We can learn from the boy scouts as well. As has been suggested, we can learn by bringing in ex-Army men. We can even learn by bringing in mercenaries returned from Africa to run the probation service. There are many organisations we can learn from and many things we can learn, but if the organisation is working well, we do not have to learn those lessons—we do not have to invoke such new experiences. So, to repeat, my point is, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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