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It is also a local service that works by local co-operation. We will weaken that local co-operation if we replace the management board by a trust dominated by businessmen that does not include—at least not in the same way as is currently the case—the magistrates, the judges, the local authorities, the police and the voluntary sector. They are included in the existing structures and that is a valuable feature of them. It has been very important that all such sectors co-operate. The local authorities and the voluntary sector have got a vital role to play, but we are about to centralise, regionalise, bring in the private sector and
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create not a vibrant mixed economy, but a patchwork quilt. That will make it difficult to provide career structures and career development, and it will provide a baptism of fear for existing services that they do not deserve.

At a time when the Government are preaching in one Department a new localism and the transfer of power down to local people, which I think is absolutely the right thing to do, we are in this crucial service transferring power upwards to regional and national structures, and taking it away from local sectors in co-operation with each other. That is wrong in principle—and it is even more wrong to bring profit into this.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): I hesitate to take the Government’s side on this point, but the effect of the legislation would be that regional offender managers would be responsible for contracting-out services themselves, and therefore in that sense we would not be centralising anything; we would be giving further powers to local people to decide what they wanted to do.

Mr. Mitchell: If that is an example of the kind of poppycock that the Conservative party is thinking, I am happy for it to be made public.

Who will provide these services? Big national correction companies that want to get into this market will provide many of them. Local services will be provided by national organisations, which will come in for the contract period and then leave, thereby disrupting local continuity and the training of staff, and making the staff insecure. Such a service will no longer be a local service involving the co-operation of all the various bodies. Currently, local authorities, magistrates, judges and the voluntary sector all co-operate in pursuit of the common purpose of the redemption of those who need support and sustenance. The simple purity of my argument is that such support will not be provided on a cash basis by a profit-making organisation. In that regard, the argument advanced in the previous intervention is absolutely wrong.

What can the private sector offer? It is certainly true that it can cut costs—and it can reduce numbers. It has to make a profit, and efficiency and economies of scale will not be achieved without weakening the local basis and depersonalising the various structures. What is our experience of the private sector? When Morrison took over the running of hostels for the probation service, costs rose by 62 per cent., so the private sector is not necessarily much more efficient. It certainly cannot provide the same service to the courts and community as the existing structure provides.

Conflicts of interest could also arise, as was pointed out in a Westminster Hall debate. A probation officer employed by the private sector could say, “I recommend that this person be committed to a correctional institution. It just so happens that my company runs a marvellous institution, called Dothelags Hall, just down the road. I have a video and a brochure showing what a wonderful service they will get there.” Or a probation officer might say, “As it happens, your honour, I also represent a tagging organisation, called McTagits. We can provide automatic tags and supervision—all through the same company.” All manner of such possibilities exist. Someone
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might say, “I represent CharitableDrainsRUs, which digs drains for charities, churches and other voluntary organisations”, and the person before the court could be committed for community service. In pursuing this approach, we are hitting the morale of a devoted and overstretched service that is working better than it has worked for a long time. The 2001 reforms are coming through and yielding benefits—and just at that moment, we choose to destroy the service’s morale and to create uncertainty. Probation officers in Grimsby have made representations to me, and I am sympathetic to their case. They are a devoted and concerned bunch, and the case that they are making is absolutely right. I could not explain to them why we are creating this uncertainty and fear, disrupting their careers and making their jobs uncertain. I could not explain why the only way to improve the service is to create the fear that they will lose their jobs, and that some other organisation will be brought in. Psychologically, that is an impossible way to approach what is a devoted service.

I do not want the atmosphere of fear, uncertainty and betrayal that is being created in the probation service by the threat of these measures. The effect is uncertain, because we are not sure how many private sector and voluntary organisations will be brought in, but there is no point in people talking about the benefits if they are not going to be brought in—assuming that the Bill is passed—on a considerable scale. It is clear that that is what will happen. The probation service does not deserve this proposal, which will undermine it.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): My hon. Friend should not run away with the idea that the Bill is about privatisation. Does he honestly believe that NACRO and Shelter should not have the opportunity to provide extra support for probation and resettlement?

Mr. Mitchell: I would ask whether those organisations should be allowed to use their expertise on such a scale as to threaten and endanger the existing service and structures. To fully utilise their expertise, that is what would have to happen. In any case, Shelter is unlikely to bid for a large number of contracts, but provides the figleaf for the powerful private sector correction companies to which the service will actually be transferred.

I regret the Minister’s intervention, as he made it at psychologically the right time to destroy my moving peroration, which would have reduced the House to tears and an inability to produce any arguments in favour of the Bill. I shall therefore skip the peroration and say only that this Bill is wrong and I cannot support it.

5.11 pm

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I shall start with the aspects on which we all agree. We all agree that the high levels of reoffending now constitute the biggest challenge facing our criminal justice system. Since 1997, reoffending rates have increased by some 20 per cent. and, for young male offenders aged between 18 and 21, they are as high as 78 per cent. Repeat crime costs some £11 billion and, of course, leaves in its wake thousands of needless victims.

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From the tenor of the debate so far, we also all agree that the objective of the Bill—to create a seamless system for offender management, in which offenders are supervised and managed both in and out of prison—is laudable. Most observers would agree that in dealing with the scourge of reoffending, the priorities are a combination of the following. We need a manageable prison population, in which prisons have the space, time and resources to do the crucial rehabilitation, education and training work to reduce reoffending. We need properly resourced, specialised facilities for offenders who have acute mental health and drug addiction problems. Any early-release provisions should be coherent and based on a risk assessment on an individual, case-by-case basis, and should not lead to the release of offenders at an earlier stage than desirable because of automatic, blanket deductions. We also need visible, credible community sentences, which—as we know from experience—reduce reoffending when well developed and implemented. We also need institutional clarity. In a system in which offenders are managed inside and outside prison, we need a clear division of labour so we know who does what. It is also important, and germane to the debate on this Bill, that there is clear co-operation and collaboration between the different agencies dealing with offenders at various stages of their incarceration and post-release reintegration into the community. Finally, we need local accountability and local knowledge in the system, because without that it is nigh impossible to do the difficult work of reintegrating offenders into their local communities.

It is against such benchmarks that the Bill should be judged. Does the Bill significantly and materially improve the delivery of all those crucial tasks that are the key to reducing reoffending? The honest answer is no. The danger is that the Bill, while laudable in its intentions, will be a highly disruptive distraction from those real challenges. By chopping and changing the organisation of the probation service yet again, the Government are in danger of ignoring the bigger issues at stake, which go beyond the managerial fiddling with the service.

Mr. Sutcliffe: Is the hon. Gentleman happy that the present arrangements for resettlement are working well?

Mr. Clegg: No, of course not, but the private and voluntary sectors are already involved in those activities, as the Minister knows, which is why I was perplexed by his earlier intervention and when the Home Secretary spoke on that point. That work is being aggressively boosted by the Home Secretary, even on the existing legislative basis. As he made clear in his speech at Wormwood Scrubs, in this financial year he is insisting that the 3 per cent. of the total probation service budget that is contracted out should be doubled, and doubled again. That is even before the Bill has made its way on to the statute book. I shall deal with that point in greater detail, but we are certainly not arguing that the present arrangements are perfect; nor are we arguing against the mixed economy, inasmuch as it already exists. However, dogma is being attached to the headlong rush to much greater contestability.

The Bill provides the Home Secretary with open-ended powers to reorganise the probation service. The probation
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boards will be abolished, even though they were established only five years ago. They will be replaced with trusts, even though the Bill gives no detail about how the trusts will be organised, who they will be staffed by, their geographical scope or their mandate. All is left to the whim and wishes of the Home Secretary at some unidentified time in the future.

The Home Secretary will enjoy wholly open-ended powers to give responsibility for delivering probation functions and services to almost anyone—private or public. There will be no caveats or qualifications. No criteria whatever will be established in the Bill. It seems to us that such constant, almost Maoist, institutional revolution as the probation service struggles to do its work is hardly conducive to raising professional standards.

The measures come on top of the existing institutional churn, which has already unsettled and, in many respects, undermined the front-line work of probation officers. The central budget for the National Offender Management Service is almost £4 million. Some of that expenditure is difficult to justify; for instance, we learn that in 2004-05 the Home Office spent £46,000 on

for NOMS. As Lord Ramsbotham recently noted, there are 300 fewer probation officers in the probation service, yet 1,500 more bureaucrats than five years ago. The probation service has 1,000 vacancies; at the same time, the NOMS bureaucracy is ballooning and growing day by day. As all Members can testify from conversations and discussions with probation officers in our constituencies, it is extremely difficult for probation officers to understand why they seem to be bereft of the front-line resources that they need to do their job when they see Whitehall bureaucracy taking shape on an ever more gargantuan scale.

Mr. Garnier: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the National Audit Office has pointed out that the Home Office does not know how many people it employs and that, owing to a technical oversight, it has an overdraft with the Paymaster General of £246 million?

Mr. Clegg: I was not aware of those points, but the hon. and learned Gentleman makes an extremely helpful intervention that serves to underline the point I was making: if bureaucracies are provided at the centre, especially when, as in the case of NOMS, the bureaucracy has been provided in a legislative vacuum without meaningful debate in the House, the danger, which many people predicted, is that they grow and grow for no obvious purpose. They are not hemmed in by a clear political mandate.

I want to speak about the all-important and controversial issue of contestability. I understand that the Home Secretary is a busy man, but it is a pity that he is no longer in the Chamber. I am not making a debating point about his presence here or elsewhere, but he made a barbed remark about whether it was possible for Liberals to oppose something that he thinks is an act of de-monopolisation.

The principle at stake is not whether there should be private or voluntary sector participation in the provision of probation services, particularly non-core services. That happens already. As I said earlier, local
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probation boards already contract out to private and voluntary sector operators. On Thursday, I visited an excellent drug rehabilitation project in Newport, under a contract from the local probation board, which provided outstanding services. That already happens, although there is then an argument about whether it is happening enough. The Home Secretary is already putting considerable pressure on probation boards, as I said, to raise the amount contracted out in the next financial year from less than 3 per cent. of the total budget to somewhere near 10 per cent.

The problem with the Bill is the artificial enforcement of greater contracting out and privatisation from the top. In my view, privatisation can work and has worked when private sector operators compete with each other in the pursuit of consumers who are free to choose in a commercial environment. In that case, most private sector operators are accountable to the custom given to them by those consumers. The Bill, however, would erect a totally distorted, rigged market in which contracts are dished out to private contractors at the behest of the Home Secretary via the new quangos—the so-called trusts. Even if one is an advocate of privatisation, this is daft and monopolistic privatisation, because it is the worst combination of administrative monopoly and centralisation in Whitehall and unaccountable, fragmented, private sector activity at local level. Far from being a blow for a liberal vision of a de-monopolised probation service, it is arrogating new powers to the centre and increasing the monopoly of decision-making power given to the Home Secretary to chop and change the probation service at will.

Why has the Home Office not produced any data or study empirically to prove the virtues of open-ended contestability? In particular, what calculations have been made of the transition costs of such disruptive change? We have discovered over and over again in the past nine or 10 years that, under the so-called rubric of reform in the public services, Ministers tend to forget that the very act of introducing such reforms creates enormous costs that prevent those public services from accruing all the benefits that the reforms purport to bring to them. How do we know that the transition costs will not outweigh the so-called benefits?

There are alternatives. The Scottish example was alluded to earlier and it is close to our heart because it was the Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Executive who pushed for plans for a centralised single probation agency in Scotland to be dropped, adopting instead through legislation introduced in November last year a model of community justice authorities. That legislation imposes a statutory obligation on the community justice authorities to co-operate with all agencies on an localised, area-by-area basis to provide that elusive goal of a seamless probation service.

That model combines the statutory compulsion to co-operate—to create that seamless service—with the freedom to innovate according to local conditions. Importantly, it allows—in fact, it actively encourages—the further expansion of the voluntary sector, but it does so according to clear, locally driven demand, not top-down diktat from the centre. Surely it would make more sense to advocate that approach, based on collaboration, but with a mixed economy of public
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probation officers and the voluntary sector and, most importantly, driven by local demand meeting local circumstances in the context of what is best for offenders as they reintegrate into their own local communities.

I am not advocating a total standstill in the arrangements. For instance, I strongly believe that the present distribution of responsibilities for the oversight and implementation of the unpaid work of community sentences needs to be looked at again. We need to be as radical as we can to boost public confidence in visible, credible and rigorous community sentences, which most observers accept is absolutely essential if we are to build up a stable of alternatives to custodial sentences and ever more overcrowded prisons.

The Bill seems to us a missed opportunity, which is why we will vote against Second Reading. I urge Opposition Members not to chivvy and chase but, having articulated such profound objections to the Bill, simply to do the right thing: not to score debating points about whether one is for or against the private sector, but to recognise that this is a flawed Bill, which does not deserve a Second Reading, and to join us in voting against it.

The Bill risks creating disruption to a service that needs clear, steady direction, not endless managerial instability. It risks diverting attention away from the bigger issues that affect reoffending rates. It risks overlooking the more pragmatic approaches that are being developed elsewhere, notably in Scotland. It certainly risks imposing target-driven centralisation, exactly when the national debate on the organisation of all public services is increasingly suggesting that what we need in the future is less, not more, centralisation. In short, it risks exacerbating, not curing, the problems of chronic reoffending that we all seem to agree must be tackled urgently.

5.25 pm

Mike Wood (Batley and Spen) (Lab): This is an important debate, so I hope that my cold will not mean that most of what I say is unintelligible. Despite the Home Secretary’s emollient words earlier in the debate, I am very concerned about many aspects of the Bill, for two reasons: it will not cut reoffending; nor will it give the public greater protection—rather the reverse.

John Colvill, the chair of my local probation board, said in a letter to me recently:

It is my view that the Bill will fracture the probation function in detriment to the public, offenders and the courts. It will centralise and privatise, against the wishes of the vast majority of those consulted by the Government. We have heard several references to the Home Office’s consultation of 2005, when 788 of the 798 respondents were against the plans. The Home Secretary said, “Well, this is a lobby.” Of course we can say that, but it was a consultation exercise and the result was an absolutely universal rejection of these proposals. There is no support for these proposals in the country, and the debate so far has shown—

Mr. Sutcliffe rose—

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