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11 Dec 2006 : Column 611

Mike Wood: Perhaps I can make some progress before my good friend the Minister interrupts me.

As the debate progresses, we will hear that there is very little support for the Bill in the House.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I will not let hon. Members say that there is no support for the Bill. I hope that my hon. Friend has read the letters from West Yorkshire probation service and from Turning Point. I hope that he has seen the various material that has come in from the voluntary sector. It is not true to say that people wholeheartedly oppose the Bill.

Mike Wood: It is not true to say that those voluntary organisations are wholeheartedly in favour of these proposals. Of course they recommend themselves to some of those voluntary organisations, because such organisations will be the beneficiaries of some of the profits, but that is quite different from saying whether the proposals have any support in any other profession or in the country more generally—they do not.

David T.C. Davies: Extending the hon. Gentleman’s argument, turkeys do not vote for Christmas, so it is unlikely that the probation service will give its support to something that will open its monopoly to competition.

Mike Wood: The hon. Gentleman makes an obvious point, but I hope that I can perhaps deal with it in more detail as I continue my speech.

The Bill has so little support, because of its innate weaknesses, that the Government have recently chosen to malign the probation service and to misuse their own reoffending figures. The Government have not justified the proposals, other than to restate their belief that the introduction of the market will, by definition, improve matters—the idea that private is good and public is bad. That comes from a Government who told us that ideology was dead and that the only thing that matters is what works, and after they have seen the chaos and the abuses in some private prisons. Only last week, the prison ombudsman’s report on Harmondsworth showed that a vast number of its detainees had alleged assault, harassment and intimidation by the staff employed by the private company that runs it.

Those are precisely the same companies that the Government seek to involve in the supervision of offenders by means of the Bill. We are told, “Don’t worry about it. It’s not going to happen straight away”, but we know that that is where things are going. We know that NACRO, Crime Concern and the Prince’s Trust may play a fuller part around the margins, but when we talk about the amount of work and money involved, we know who is being encouraged to bid.

I have many concerns about the Bill and its results if it is ever enacted in its present form. My concerns revolve largely around clauses 3 and 4 in part 1, but I find much of the Bill objectionable. I am thinking, for instance, of the removal in part 2 of the last impediments to staff in private prisons having complete control of prisoners—from personal searches to extra punishments and restrictions in the prison. There is even the ability to hold members of the public captive for up to two hours if they are suspected of introducing contraband into the prison. Most
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importantly, in view of the record in privately run establishments such as Harmondsworth, Doncaster and Park prisons, is it really the time to enable prisons not to employ a medical officer, as in clause 20? The medical officer is exactly the person we would expect to pick up first on abuse, assaults and the like.

Clauses 3 and 4 enshrine the purpose of the Bill. They enshrine the requirement and the wish to centralise and privatise the probation function—to take control of the work that is undertaken with offenders and in servicing courts away from locally accountable people, and to vest it in the hands of the Secretary of State and his regionally based commissioners. Committed and professionally trained staff will often be replaced with untrained and unsupported workers who are not adequate to the task. Just look at the conditions of staff in private prisons—and the pay. It is less than 50 per cent. of that in state prisons. Is it any wonder that the turnover is 25 per cent.? We are told that those companies have been pressing the Government to bring forward the Bill. They will approach the probation task in exactly the same cost-cutting fashion that they have approached their work in prisons.

Paul Farrelly: Does my hon. Friend agree that, in a system that is based on case management, the insertion of contracts, particularly if they are cheap contracts, runs the risk of worsening the offender management system? As we found out in many private finance initiative hospitals, the private company will insist, “No, we can’t do that. That will cost too much money.” The system could be depersonalised.

Mike Wood: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. In fact, we are being offered the ending of the probation service, after 100 years of professional service and commitment, and its replacement by a hotch-potch of competing companies and organisations. It is interesting to look at the recent experience of the probation service in passing to private companies services such as catering, cleaning and electronic tagging. We have heard that only 2 or 3 per cent. of the budget goes to such companies and organisations, but that is a false figure. We know that a lot of the money that was previously used for that purpose is top-sliced. The figure is probably 7, 8 or 9 per cent. Let us look at the experience of contracting out those services. That was an absolute disaster. As we speak, the contracts are being renegotiated.

On top of all that evidence and the complete lack of support for the proposals anywhere in the country, the Government have another impediment to the introduction of the proposals: the probation service itself, which has greatly increased its productivity over the past few years. I am interested that there was a suggestion from the Dispatch Box that massive extra resources have gone in and that that all relates to probation officers. In fact, we are talking about 1,600 staff employed by the National Offender Management Service. Nobody knows what they do. NOMS was created to align and unify the probation service and the Prison Service. What happened to that? That was what it was supposed to be for. Some 1,600 staff are being taken from the sharp end and away from the work that needs doing. Extra resources have gone in, but certainly
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not in the form of probation officers; as we have heard, the number is reducing, not increasing.

The service has considerably increased its productivity over the past few years, and it meets or more than meets more Government targets than ever before. Some 220,000 offenders in this country are being supervised in the community, including 14,000 who are deemed to be dangerous or highly dangerous, yet only 0.6 per cent. of them reoffend. The service meets or more than meets 27 of the 30 targets set by the Government.

Let us consider my own area of west Yorkshire, whose probation service I visit on a yearly basis at its invitation. In the first six months of this year, it met its target on the assessment of high-risk cases in four days in 92 per cent. of cases. That was an increase from 85 per cent. Its assessment of prolific and priority offenders has increased from 89 per cent. to 93 per cent., and its unpaid work completions have increased from 104 per cent. to 106 per cent. I understand that in some areas progress is even better than that.

As Diana Johnson, the assistant chief in west Yorkshire, told me when we met most recently, innovation, end-to-end management of offenders and partnerships are the order of the day. We do not need privatisation or a massive reorganisation to bring this about. This is the bread and butter of the service at the sharp end now.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I appreciate that my hon. Friend is struggling with a cold and I wish him a speedy recovery—I shall pass some Lemsip on to him shortly. I acknowledge, in no negative way, his role as a former probation officer. I know that he has a great deal of expertise in this area and that he feels passionately about it. Nobody is criticising the performance of the probation service, although he says that it is the Government’s intention to do so. I want to place on record our tremendous thanks for the work of the probation service. The difficulty is that the reoffending rates are still high and public confidence in the service is lacking.

Mike Wood: Just as the offer of Lemsip is not totally convincing, nor are the Minister’s reassurances to the probation service. We heard earlier that nobody disputes that the reoffending rate is high. It has been a problem ever since the probation service was instituted 100 years ago. However, the probation service is not the only responsible party. The Government should look at themselves and at some of their policies before they start casting around for somebody to blame for what they say, using phoney figures, is an unacceptably high rate of reoffending.

On the evidence that I have adduced, what possible justification could there be to risk this success and to move to an untried and unwanted new system so soon after the introduction in 2003 of the national service and probation boards, which have not yet bedded in? Lord Ramsbotham pointed out how constant change endangers the morale of the service when he said on 3 November:

In my view, despite all that, the probation service is coping well, and therefore the Government obviously have a problem. As so many targets are being met, they have to undermine the service—notwithstanding what the Minister has just said—and doctor their own reoffending figures. How is the service being undermined? My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who is no longer in the Chamber, mentioned a climate of fear. We see that when the uninformed media attacks that are made on the service are not met by any positive or supportive response from the Government. In fact, the Home Secretary—I am sorry that he has had to leave—recently felt it appropriate to agree with the producers of “Panorama” that community supervision should amount to 24 hours a day surveillance. How on earth could it?

We can see no more shameful an example of the undermining of the service than the fact that the Home Secretary chose the inmates of Wormwood Scrubs to hear his views on the failings of the probation service. That was a calculated, gratuitous provocation designed to destroy the morale of the service, which his own figures prove is performing brilliantly.

Because the figures are also a problem, they too have to be undermined and rubbished. Here, the term “dodgy dossier” comes to mind. Even accepting that there are lies, damned lies and statistics, not least in the field of crime and crime prevention, how can the Government make their case on reoffending only by cooking the books and contending that reoffending rates are the same for those with and those without the support of a probation officer?

We know how the Government have done it: by conflating several sets of statistics and comparing like with not-like. In fact, the adjusted figures for reoffending by those on orders with the benefit of a probation officer is 44 per cent., compared with 58 per cent. for those without—or, if we are to believe a recent article in The Times, 41 per cent. for those with the benefit of a probation officer and 66 for those without. Not only are the rates not the same, but there is a massive difference. A huge improvement is gained by those who have the benefit of a professionally trained probation officer.

For months, the false figures have been given credence. Baroness Scotland, a junior Minister, even wrote to all Labour Members repeating them. I say that they are false figures not only because the Government figures are at variance with those provided by NAPO, of which, as the Minister mentioned, I am a former member, but because they have been ridiculed and challenged by the writers of The Times article, leading academics and a considerable number of experts working in the field ever since they were first trotted out.

I have great misgivings about the proposed legislation and the way in which it has been introduced. If the Government were really interested in reducing reoffending, without too much recourse to the mantra,
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“tough on the causes of crime”, would they not be working with the probation service on, for example, the actions proposed in 2002 by the social exclusion unit as major ways of lessening reoffending? Should we not be examining sentencing policy, especially as it affects the 50,000 prisoners a year who serve short sentences—six months or less—with whom no work is done, either in prison or outside, and whose reoffending rate is in excess of 70 per cent.? The Government, rather than work to overcome that, have recently cancelled their custody-plus plans, which were aimed specifically at that problem.

Should not the Government be working with the probation service on employment on release, which reduces the risk of reoffending by up to a half, or stable accommodation, which reduces it by up to 20 per cent.? Should they not be working on offenders’ education, family contact and health care? Perhaps we might even get them to change tack and challenge the nonsense of “prison works”, and instead follow the Scandinavian model of sending far fewer people to prison and spending far more on them—not because of some liberal over-identification with the offender, but to make a major contribution to reducing reoffending.

A prison place costs taxpayers £37,500 a year. It costs between £2,000 and £8,000 for the same individual to be dealt with by a probation officer in the community. On those figures, probation is not only good sense, but good business sense. What makes no sense is to entrust probation clients, as varied and as difficult as they are, to those groups that have shown themselves to be incapable even of organising the catering and cleaning in probation offices.

I end my speech with a few words from the Probation Boards Association, which says:

it had previously listed the functions of the service. The PBA goes on to say that the probation service

The probation service has invaluable knowledge and expertise to share with local authorities, the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, courts, prisons, those involved in the parole system and youth justice, health and education services and partners in the voluntary sector. Once the service is broken up, that will be irretrievably lost. That is what is at stake, and that is why we should resist the Bill in its totality.

5.45 pm

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Following on from the speech by the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mike Wood), as the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe) is getting a bit of a mauling from hon. Members in his own party at the moment, he will no doubt be pleased to hear that the Member of Parliament described as the most right-wing in the House is about to ride to his rescue, in part, on the main proposals in the Bill. Before I do that, I must take him to task on clauses 24 and 25, which have not yet been mentioned today.

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The Minister may have to help me out, because I do not pretend to be an expert on the subject, but my understanding is that young offenders who are sentenced to between eight and 16 months in a young offenders institution are automatically released halfway through their sentence, but they will usually be released exactly one month before that halfway point is reached, provided that they conform with certain measures, which I think—I am not sure—include testing negative for drugs. Similarly, young offenders serving a sentence of more than 16 months will automatically be released halfway through their sentence, at the eight-month point, but if they conform to the requirements, they will be released exactly two months to the day before that halfway point.

Clause 24 would remove the necessity on the prison governor to keep such offenders in prison until the halfway point, if they fail to meet those requirements. If I understand the provision, that is a retrograde step, because it means that more people will leave detention centres earlier. That is in contradiction to what the Government like to say that they are doing, which is keeping people in prison for longer. The fact that people are automatically released halfway through their sentence is a travesty of justice, but if the clause is agreed to, it will effectively be a get-out-of-jail-earlier card. Clause 25 gives me, and anyone who has been a victim of crime, even more concern, because it is a get-out-of-jail-free card—in fact, it is a do-not-even-go-to-jail card. Let us be truthful: very few people are sentenced to detention these days, particularly if they are young offenders. Usually, young offenders must have been convicted on many occasions of many different crimes before they face any sort of custodial sentence. However, even if a young offender is sentenced to detention by the judge, under clause 25, the authorities can send them not to a detention centre, but to what is described as an open children’s home, and that is a gross injustice.

Recently, I dealt with the case of an elderly lady who was burgled in her bungalow at night by a 17-year-old. She has suffered a life sentence because of that event—it has absolutely ruined her life. The person involved, who already had a string of convictions for house burglaries committed at night, was sentenced to slightly more than 16 months, but he will spend considerably less than that in detention. Had he been sentenced according to the provisions of clause 25, instead of serving six months in a detention centre—that is what he will get at present—he would not go to a detention centre at all. He would be whisked off to a comfortable children’s home with all mod cons, and would not spend any time whatever in detention. Quite apart from the fact that that would not result in justice for the victims of crime, it will inevitably result in further crimes.

I recently took part in the police parliamentary scheme, and I came into contact with a children’s home—I do not want to say exactly where it is. One night, as we went out looking for someone who had walked out of that home, I was told by the police that there is absolutely nothing that the authorities can do to stop young people walking out of that or any other children’s home, even if the staff know that that young person is off to buy drugs, to commit further
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crimes, or even to prostitute themselves—and all those things are sadly all too common among the disturbed and unlucky children who find themselves in such homes.

Mr. Sutcliffe: All that we are proposing in the provision on children homes is the use of that facility for young offenders who are seeking gainful employment or training. That environment may be a better option than a custodial sentence. It is certainly not about giving people free rein, as they will be properly risk-assessed.

David T.C. Davies: The judge who decides the sentence can already determine that it will not involve detention. If, however, he decides that detention is appropriate, the clause permits other authorities—probably the regional offender managers—to overrule his decision and put the person into a children’s home. It will no longer be in the judge’s hands.

The Minister will know that one argument often deployed against prison is that it is a university of crime. An innocent person goes to prison—it is unlikely but, nevertheless, that is the argument—meets all the old lags, and suddenly becomes a criminal. If there is any truth whatsoever in that argument, how much worse is it to put hardened criminals—that is what they will be if they are sentenced to detention—into a children’s home with vulnerable young people?

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): The hon. Gentleman may be interested to hear the views of my old criminology teacher, who pointed out that the “university of crime” argument had to be supplemented by the fact that people in prison were incompetent criminals, so the people whom they taught were more likely to be caught.

David T.C. Davies: Unfortunately, that is not true. Many criminals are caught, because they commit crimes so often that, statistically, they will be caught sooner or later. They take a fairly intelligent view, because they know that if they are caught they are unlikely to be prosecuted. If, however, they are prosecuted, they are unlikely to be convicted. If they are convicted, they are unlikely to be sentenced to detention. If clause 25 is accepted, even if they are sentenced to detention, they will end up in a children’s home for a few months.

Several hon. Members rose—

David T.C. Davies: I cannot give way to everyone, so I shall give way to the hon. Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove).

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): I thank the hon. Gentleman for provoking me into making an intervention. I am listening to his entertaining speech with interest, but I wonder how it squares with the policy of the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) of hugging hoodies and being nice to people who have committed a crime? How does the hon. Gentleman’s traditional Conservative view sit with those of the Leader of the Opposition?

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