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That implies that any part of the work done by the probation service will be open to competition at some point in the future. Ministers say, “We think the probation service is doing a great job”, yet, bizarrely, the Home Secretary chose to go to Wormwood Scrubs to make a speech in front of prisoners in which he ran down the performance of the probation service. He said, “To be frank, the probation system is not working as well as it should. There are areas where performance isn’t good enough” and went on about how we would pass the necessary legislation, go further and make, on a compulsory basis if necessary, a much larger proportion of probation service work—services with an annual value of up to £250 million—competitive.

Two hundred and fifty million pounds is a fair slice of the probation budget and there is no way in which one could compete at that level without starting to eat into the core work. It does not help the probation service if such comments are made to an audience of prisoners. It is like walking into a doctor’s surgery and saying to the waiting patients, “By the way, you know this bloke you’re going to see is rubbish.” Prisoners will be supervised by the probation service. It will not help probation officers to be reminded of the Home Secretary’s comments.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): My hon. Friend said that the probation service was reorganised only four years ago. Does he agree that, to reduce reoffending, the service currently needs a period of stability so that it can consolidate the changes, which, I understand, are working well? I have had talks in my area about that. Does my hon. Friend agree that a period of stability is the way forward?

Mr. Gerrard: My hon. Friend is right. We know from other services that continual reorganisation and restructuring causes problems. It has happened often
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and it is a problem now. If people’s morale is undermined, good people go. They decide, “I’m not going to do this any more. I’m going to find another job where I don’t have the same pressures.”

At one point, the Home Secretary said that the offender management work would be safe for several years. At another, he said that it would be safe for two or three years. The Bill means that none of it is safe for any guaranteed time. One cannot have it both ways. It is no good saying to probation officers, “We value your work and want you to do the offender management work,” yet simultaneously say, “Ah but, at some point—maybe in two or three years—it’s going to be privatised and out to competition.” Who are those people out there who are supposed to be trained and able to undertake offender management and the work that probation officers currently do?

When I consider the privatisation that has happened elsewhere in the criminal justice system, it does not fill me with confidence. The inspector of prisons said that the report on Harmondsworth was undoubtedly the poorest that the inspectorate had issued on an immigration removal centre. It is privately run but, when the problems occurred a couple of weeks ago, who was brought in to retake the place and regain control? It was the Prison Service, not the private sector. The pattern in the prisons system means that the private sector gets the nice, new modern prisons to run, not the tough stuff. It does not get the old Victorian prisons.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): It does not bid for them.

Mr. Gerrard: Precisely. It does not bid for them because there are no profits to be made—that is what the private sector is about.

The probation boards are to be turned into trusts with the Home Secretary appointing the members. Any semblance of local accountability will thus disappear from them. At least some members of the boards are local magistrates and councillors, and there is, therefore, some local accountability, but it will disappear. That happened with other trusts, for example, in the health service. When one considers the membership of trust boards, one wonders what accountability the members have to anybody. Indeed, they are accountable to no one.

The obvious alternative has been mentioned several times. In Scotland, there is a statutory responsibility on those involved in protection work and dealing with reoffenders to work together. I appreciate that the legal system in Scotland is different but the basic problem of the way in which one should deal with reoffenders is no different, whether one works in Scotland or in England and Wales. Nobody would have a problem with an approach that increased partnership.

Community safety partnerships involve the police, local authorities and other local agencies. They are having a positive effect. However, not an ounce of responsibility is being removed from the police for law enforcement. We could do the same sort of thing and improve partnerships. I appreciate that, over time, it may mean some shifting in the balance of work in, for example, the supervision of unpaid work or education.
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If the Bill provided guarantees to ensure that the core probation responsibilities would not be privatised, we could go a long way towards agreement. However, as it stands, it provides that anything can go out to privatisation. That is unnecessary and the case for delivering results is unproven. I am not prepared to support the measure this evening.

6.26 pm

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): One of the best and earliest decisions by the new Home Secretary was to scrap plans to reform Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons, presumably on the basis of if ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I wish that the Home Secretary and his new team had spent more time pondering the other inheritance—that of the Offender Management Bill—simply to test how much value it adds to the fundamental challenge of reducing reoffending rates. Whether those rates are 60 per cent. or 40 per cent., they are too high. The statistics reek of failure and financial and human cost.

We are discussing a fundamental reform of a service that is vital for public protection and is clearly under great pressure. I was struck by the number of people passing through the system. In 2005, 180,000 entered into probation service supervision and the number has grown by 30 per cent. since 1993. Is the service failing? The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) was passionate and eloquent about the fact that it meets most of its Government targets. However, the public perception is of failure, not helped by media treatment of some high profile, emotive and tragic events. There is also a feeling, which the hon. Members for Batley and Spen (Mike Wood) and for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) powerfully articulated, that matters are not helped by Government intervention and the Home Secretary.

More important, the probation service is another public service that is subject to the culture of permanent reform. The previous reform took place four years ago. When I speak to representatives of the big public services—for example, those who run schools and hospitals—in my constituency, I am struck by the common sentiment of, “Leave us alone. Stop piling on additional reform before you let the last one bed in.” That voice is being heard throughout the public services. Against that backdrop, the House should be tougher in pushing for hard evidence of the case for reform.

Is the Bill worth further disrupting a vital public service? There is only one yardstick: how will the measure contribute to reducing reoffending, thus helping protect the public better? An enormous prize is attached to that, not only the financial prize, which runs into billions of pounds if reoffending is reduced by 5 or 10 per cent., but a massive human prize in helping more of our fellow citizens get their lives back on track.

The issue does not appear to be about the principle of end-to-end management, which has hardly been debated this afternoon. The meat of the discussion is contestability—the principle or the threat of competition, which can be a powerful driver of change. As a Conservative who worked in business for 18 years before entering politics, I know full well the value of
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competition. I would normally support it because it focuses minds, raises standards of service and tends to drive down cost.

I am also a passionate believer in the value that the third sector adds. I recently visited a prison in Bovingdon to see the Sycamore Tree project, and I was struck by the extent to which the service depends on volunteers. That project, which aims to bring offenders face to face with the consequences of their crimes, was enormously powerful.

I need no lectures on the merits of competition or the value that the third sector can add. However, given the huge sensitivities about offender management and how we release back into the community people who might represent a risk to our fellow citizens, we must be sure that the Bill, which is highly centralist in driving increased fragmentation of the service, will make a difference.

My question for the Minister and the Home Secretary is: where is the evidence? I have not heard any. I was very disappointed by the response to my question—that as 2 to 3 per cent. of the market is already subcontracted outside the public sector, in the private or voluntary sector, there ought to be a body of evidence that supports a causal link between increased competition and reduced offending. The fact that the Home Secretary could not come to the Dispatch Box and make that case with any robust data was extremely disappointing.

In the absence of new evidence, one begins to listen to the voices of concern, which are out there on a very big scale. About 90 per cent. of responses to the public consultation opposed increased competition, a point made strongly by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby. The responses come from some very respectable sources. The chairman of the Probation Boards Association said that the overriding criterion was whether these proposals were likely to reduce reoffending. He contended that a multiplicity of providers being promoted in a confused marketplace and regional offender managers commissioning from the regional level and not the local level could only militate against the achievement of a reduction in reoffending.

The Prison Reform Trust is concerned about local accountability and a move away from community solutions to crime prevention and resettlement. The Howard League for Penal Reform considers that the current proposals “sound the death knell” for a publicly accountable probation service.

Usefully, the National Association of Probation Officers points to the maintenance of training standards. Today, apparently, it costs £70,000 to train in the probation service. That makes sense, given the need for qualifications and the high level of training. How can we be sure of maintaining those training standards in a more fragmented marketplace in which the private sector is more dominant? The Local Government Association warns that the new model would hamper local partnerships working together at a time when the Government appear to be encouraging just that.

I am all for strong leadership in the face of opposition and dug-in vested interests, as long as it is supported by good, hard evidence. We have heard none today. In its absence, it is not encouraging that the
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Government’s mind has changed so much in the past few years—although perhaps that is not surprising, given the revolving door at the Home Office.

I come again to the National Association of Probation Officers. It pointed out in its criticism of the proposals that the Bill is a complete reversal of the Government’s position in 1998 when in a consultation paper, “Joining Forces to Protect the Public”, it recommended that the national probation service be established. At that time, the probation service was perceived, it said, as a fragmented organisation with only limited local accountability. The danger is that that is exactly what the Bill might reproduce.

The case for reform and further disruption of a major public service has not been supported by evidence of a link between increased competition and reducing reoffending rates. The Bill reeks of centralisation, when one intuitively feels that the solutions are likely to be increasingly local. Personally, I regret the lack of emphasis on the bigger picture. There is an urgent need to make prison work more effectively for those inside it. That lack is particularly disappointing, given the excellent work done in 2002 by the Government’s social exclusion unit in identifying the key factors that influence reoffending. Those pathways to support the rehabilitation of offenders include accommodation, education, training, employment, mental and physical health, drugs, alcohol, finance, benefits and debt, maintaining relationships with children and family, attitudes, thinking and behaviour.

Since then, not enough has been done to make prison work more effectively. The Bill feels like a missed opportunity to get to grips with one of the most stubborn and unacceptable facts on the political landscape: two thirds of people who pass through our prisons will reoffend within two years. That statistic reeks of failure and carries with it a huge sense of waste—both of money and human lives.

6.35 pm

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): Many other speakers have talked in detail about the impact of this legislation on the probation service and have expressed serious concerns, which I accept, about the involvement of the private sector in offender management. I hope that the House will forgive me if instead of concentrating on those points, I talk about the impact of the legislation on the voluntary sector organisations with which I have worked as a Member of Parliament during the past 18 months.

I also want to talk about something that has not come up in the debate so far: the offenders themselves. We have talked about the structures, systems and details of the legislation, but not about the people out there whose lives will be affected by the changes—I hope for the better, although some Members will have different views. I want to talk about those people.

My interest stems from when I spent several years working in the criminal justice system. I worked for a firm of legal aid solicitors, most of whose criminal clients were young offenders. Before that, I worked at a magistrates court, where I saw the same young men come before the courts time and again. If they were not in the dock themselves, they were usually at court anyway, as their mates or brothers were there.

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Turning up each day was a way of life for them. Each time they came back before the magistrate, their offences were more serious and their sentences became longer. They swiftly moved from being antisocial nuisances, to career criminals, to hardened convicts. Perhaps one or two of them stepped away from a life of crime after their second brush with the courts, but we could more or less guarantee that their first appearance would not be their last.

In later years, when I had stopped working in the law, I would read reports of the same individuals in the local press. One had been found dead in a ditch in mysterious circumstances; another had died of a heroin overdose. Another had died from glue sniffing and yet another was in court for a bank robbery. It was clear that, whatever their experience of the criminal justice system—from cautions to convictions, from community sentences to custody—nothing had stopped them offending, and doing so in more and more serious ways as their lives progressed.

No doubt, some would say that such prolific offenders will always be with us, that some are simply beyond help and that the best we can do is incapacitate them by locking them up for longer and longer periods. We heard some of that argument from the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) earlier. However, I argue that we cannot afford to give up on such offenders because the cost to society is too great. The social exclusion unit’s report calculated that in 2003-04 the cost of reoffending was £11 billion—nearly a third of the total cost of crime, estimated at £36 billion.

The Home Office estimates that 10 per cent. of active offenders are responsible for half of all crime. I have been told that in my local area there are 110 prolific offenders who generate 63 per cent. of acquisitive crime. Most, of course, have serious drug habits to feed. It is estimated that those offenders are responsible for about 25,000 crimes a year. Avon and Somerset police say that the socio-economic cost of each to the taxpayer is £225,000 a year, which includes the cost of their crime, policing, convicting them and trying to clear up some of the mess that they have caused.

We have two alternatives for those 110 offenders: we could lock them up and throw away the key or make a serious attempt to rehabilitate some of them. Lots of figures have been bandied around in today’s debate, and those for rehabilitation are not encouraging. Some 66 per cent. of those who serve a custodial sentence go on to reoffend, and 58 per cent. of offenders reoffend. Of most concern is the fact that up to 85 per cent. of young offenders go on to reoffend. The only conclusion that I can reach is that prison clearly does not work. It is also clear that in many instances the probation service does not work either; there are people whom the probation service has not been able to reach. They need a different kind of focus and structured, sometimes very intensive, support.

That brings me to the role of the voluntary sector, particularly that in Bristol, which has been doing excellent work with offenders and young people who are seen to be at risk of offending. There are organisations such as Restore, which engages with young people on a south Bristol housing estate, involving them in a furniture recycling project. Those young people are learning skills,
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being kept off the street and away from other young people in the community who are committing crime. That organisation does really good work. Another organisation called Amber looks at offenders’ education, training and employment needs. And there is one called RAPt, the Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust, which provides a structured residential drug treatment programme for offenders.

Research that RAPt commissioned from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies shows that two years after release, more than 50 per cent. of those who have graduated from the RAPt programme are still clean of drugs, compared with 20 per cent. who have not been through the programme. Only 16 per cent. of RAPt graduates have been reconvicted since their release, compared with 43 per cent. of non-graduates.

Last month I hosted the parliamentary launch of Believe, an organisation that has worked with prolific offenders in Bristol for the past two years. I was grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) for speaking at the event. We heard from an ex-offender who had spent most of his adult life and much of his youth in custody. He spoke eloquently and passionately about the way in which his life had been transformed by support from Believe. He is now mentoring other offenders who have been released from custody more recently.

Over the last two years Believe has worked with 150 offenders, half of whom are deemed to be prolific offenders who are almost 100 per cent. certain to reoffend. The organisation calculates that its work is currently preventing reoffending at a rate some 20 per cent. above what the probation service would achieve. It costs £5,000 a year to put an offender through Believe’s programme. That should be taken in conjunction with the £225,000 figure given by Avon and Somerset police. Believe reckons that in the two years for which it has been in operation it has saved the taxpayer some £4 million, and it says that with more resources and wider partnership work—which the Bill will facilitate—it would be able to do much more.

Why do I think that Believe could succeed where the probation service may have failed? I think that its success may be partly due to the fact that it works with offenders in a much more intensive and motivational way. It builds consistent, long-lasting and trusting relationships. Many of the offenders with whom I have dealt in the past know full well how to play the probation service. They see it as part of the establishment—something that ought to be challenged, tricked, conned and worked around. They do not have the same relationship with the people with whom they work in the voluntary sector.

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