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Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): I was grateful for the opportunity to hear the Home Secretary introduce the Bill. I am concerned that we still have far too many people committing serious criminal offences for the first time. Incidentally—this is what my wife calls the MLM or “me lovely me” bit—I challenge the claim that crime has been reduced under the present Government but was not under the previous Government. If the Home Office bothers to include car crime, including over-the-limit drink driving, which used to kill many more people than homicides, it can be seen that the number of criminal offences committed each week by young men under 30 decreased by probably more than 1 million a week in the late 1980s. No reduction in other crime has matched that. I would argue that there are good reasons to use the same sort of cultural attack on crime and its causes that worked so successfully in reducing
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the number of drink-drive deaths from 1,200 a year to 300 to 350 a year now—but that is not the point of the Bill.

Jeffrey Archer spent time in jail, and in his books on jail, which I commend to everyone who is seriously interested in crime and punishment, he makes a number of points, one of which is that it is perverse to pay people in prison £12 a week to push a broom around as a cleaner, but only £6 to £8 a week for receiving education. It would be useful to the Government, in what they are trying to do to improve education for people who are interned, to try to provide incentives for education. The best incentive for education is not, of course, the money that people get for undertaking it while they are in prison; its real purpose is different. However, the money is a signal, in a way, and no one should be paid less for receiving an education than for doing physical labour in prison.

Jeffrey Archer points out the way in which people who are sentenced to jail, especially for the first time, spend the early weeks of their term in a secure prison, where there are many people who are inured to prison discipline, and who use a system of putting pressure on new incomers to get them involved in the use of illegal drugs, and to arrange payments outside. To those who may laugh at the quotation of Jeffrey Archer, I say that he and all those who have experience of prisons, including prison officers, prison visitors and prisoners themselves, would reckon that he has got it right. I hope that Ministers will go on encouraging people in the Prison Service to find effective ways of making sure that young, new prisoners are not influenced by old, bad prisoners, because I fear that many people who are not on drugs when they enter prison are on drugs when they come out.

That brings me to a matter on which the Home Office might have a partnership influence: the national scheme for dealing with people who are on drugs. I have had an incredibly bad experience in Worthing, in my current constituency. I shall not go into detail, as a passing reference is sufficient, but one really good doctor who was dealing with chaotic drug users had got a high proportion of them off drugs straight away—and most of them have stayed off drugs, too. However, the official or more authorised service had a delay of at least 10 days for triage, and a delay of 10 days after triage for getting people on to a substitute for street drugs. If street drug users need a fix four times a day, that delay means 20 extra days, or 80 more occasions, on which they have to find money and supplies. That helps to keep the market going, and has other effects with which I need not trouble the House this evening.

I want to discuss the subject in a non-partisan way, and I am willing to believe that Ministers and those working with them think that the Bill will allow an advance to be made. I was a sceptic about the previous changes to the probation service. If I manage to be selected to serve on the Committee considering the Bill, I am not sure that I will always be mild, obedient, good and kind to my party managers, because in some clauses we should consider the arguments on their merits, as well as with reference to the significant leadership that the Conservative Front-Bench team will provide to the Committee. However, the Government
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will have to illustrate why they think that they have got things right in this new part of their constant revolution.

I hope that, in Committee, the Government can explain matters in more detail than Ministers may want to provide in their winding-up speeches today, because there are a number of anomalies, one of which is the issue of how various clauses match together. For example, clauses 12 and 13 both have to do with the use of force, but people are authorised to use force in one clause and not in the other. I do not quite understand what the significant difference of principle is between the two, but the Minister may be able to explain, either now or in Committee. I am not sure about Crown immunity, either, as it seems that it does not apply to the property of non-Government-owned trusts, but that it does apply to the people working in the new probation service who are not Government employees. However, that, too, may be explained later.

This weekend, I took part in a 24-hour vigil outside our local hospital. At about 10 o’clock in the morning, after a busy day for the staff in the hospital, a youth came out of accident and emergency, asking for cigarette papers. I think that he wanted to go on smoking what he had been smoking the evening before. He then went back in, but he and two of his friends came out of the hospital escorted by an employee of a firm called Global Security, who handled them with immense effectiveness and great courtesy. They were sent off the hospital premises, not drinking or smoking, and they went without causing further trouble.

At any moment, the whole situation could have blown up. I have no doubt that the employee’s colleagues would have dealt with the matter similarly. I do not know his name, otherwise I would name him, but his actions showed that the private sector can do sensitive work effectively, and I praise those who do that work—not just the voluntary organisations, but people in commercial companies who take on some of the responsibilities that would otherwise have been undertaken by uniformed staff employed by the state.

Lastly, I echo what has been said about mental illness, which causes a great deal of trouble and upset to individuals. Those individuals can be troublesome to themselves and others, so we need to get the issue of resources right. I hope that the Minister will explain, either now or in Committee, what is meant by the requirement on Ministers, in clause 2, to “ensure...sufficient provision”. If that is provision of resources, I shall be interested to know how he intends to monitor how long a person who is subject to a supervision order, or a person whose case is referred to probation for a report, will have to wait until the relevant action is taken. That is a field in which time delays must be abolished, one way or another. If a probation report is needed, it must be provided, and if a supervision order is made, it needs to start. I am not referring to 24-hour supervision of everybody, but the system needs to be made to work. There are too many delays in the health service; let us hope that the probation service does not join it.

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8.26 pm

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): Like the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), may I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, for not being here for part of the debate? I was detained on an unavoidable constituency issue. [Interruption.] The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) seems to take issue with me, but I was here for the first three hours of the debate.

This is an important debate, and reducing crime is a matter of great concern to my constituents in South Swindon. For that reason, the Bill is of great interest. As the Secretary of State said at the beginning of the debate, it is not tolerable that the probation reoffending rate is so high, and whether we believe that the statistic is 60 per cent., 53 per cent., 44 per cent. or 41 per cent.—all those figures have been referred to in the Chamber—the figure is still too high. It is a poor deal for communities, and we must do something to rectify the situation.

Crime is down in my constituency, and the number of police officers is at a record level, but the amount of reoffending among those who persist in breaking the law is too high, and we need to address it. I have talked to a number of probation officers, members of the probation service and magistrates in preparation for today’s debate, and I understand their deep concerns about the Bill. I want to question the Minister carefully, and I ask him to reassure my constituents, probation officers in Wiltshire and me on a number of points.

It is not true, as my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Mike Wood) asserted, that providers are entirely opposed to the Bill, as the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations has made supportive comments, and there have been expressions of support from major third sector providers, including NACRO, Turning Point and Crime Concern. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) said that voluntary organisations acted as a fig leaf for the private sector. That is not the case, as they have done some excellent work, and the probation service would be enriched by working with them.

As I said, I have heard criticisms from the Probation Boards Association and members of the probation service in my area. At my request, I had a conversation with the chief officer of Wiltshire probation area, Diana Fulbrook, for whom I have great regard, as she has done outstanding work for the probation service. Her concerns will not necessarily be borne out, but I understand why she is worried about the probation service, so I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to bear with me while I give voice to the anxieties that she and her colleagues in Wiltshire have expressed. They are concerned, for example, that

I hope that that is not true, because the Government have protected and enhanced the probation service, particularly after the 2001 reorganisation. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary commented, 5,000 more probation staff have been employed since 2001 and, while there has been a 30 per cent. increase in their case load, there has been a 50 per cent. increase in their budget.

It is true, as Members on both sides of the House have said, that probation officers have an enormous
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case load, but we must pay credit to the fact that there has been an enormous increase in resources. However, probation officers believe that the Bill will end the probation service as we know it, so we must listen to their concerns and address them. Having served on several Standing Committees with my hon. Friend the Minister and seen how he has dealt with diverse issues expertly and sensitively, I am confident that he can take the probation service with him.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Anne Snelgrove: Yes. Have I provoked my hon. Friend?

David Taylor: I do not think that my hon. Friend was a Member of Parliament when the proposals for the 2001 reorganisation were introduced. They were designed to deal with fragmentation and limited accountability at both local and national level, and they succeeded in doing so. How on earth, therefore, would she explain to her correspondent the introduction of further fragmentation and diminishing local accountability under the current proposals?

Anne Snelgrove: I was coming on to talk about fragmentation, and my hon. Friend is right that I was not a Member of Parliament when the 2001 proposals were introduced.

Diana Fulbrook’s concerns match my hon. Friend’s, as she is worried that there will be a series of providers, each delivering something different. Offenders will be passed around those providers, depending on their order requirements, so I hope that the Minister will respond to the charge of fragmentation in his winding-up speech. I have been in communication with one of our local magistrates, who said:

Those serious concerns must be addressed. As I said, I have confidence in my hon. Friend the Minister, but we want to know more about the proposals, both this evening and during the Bill’s progress through the House.

Probation officers are concerned, too, about professionalism and qualifications in the probation service. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary dealt with that in part, but there is concern that the Bill will do away with the need for qualifications in the probation service. The Government have increased professionalism in every other occupation—we have introduced qualifications for teaching assistants in schools—so I hope that the Minister can scotch those concerns quickly and easily. The probation service is concerned that it will be centralised and controlled by the Secretary of State. I do not know why that should be the case, as it is Government policy to localise many other services, but the probation service believes that it does not fit in with any other organisation, apart from the Prison Service. It delivers in the community, and it is strongly integrated with the police, local authorities and local partnership, so its serious concerns need to be tackled.

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I hope that the Minister will convince me that the focus will be on what is required to meet local needs, and that what has already been achieved in partnership and community links, particularly in my local Wiltshire service, will not be fractured or lost when the new proposals are introduced. My experience in Swindon has taught me that tackling reoffending requires a broad coalition of effort, which is why I welcome the voluntary organisations coming in.

Mr. Sutcliffe: My hon. Friend makes the important point that it is the responsibility of the whole community to deal with reoffending. In the past there have been silo operations with no discussion between authorities. I am sure she will be pleased that the Local Government Association has produced a pamphlet called “Neighbourhood by Neighbourhood”, which shows for the first time I can remember—I have been involved in national and local politics for many years—that local authorities have accepted their responsibility for dealing with reoffending.

Anne Snelgrove: I thank my hon. Friend for that. It is indeed good news. I am glad to give some more good news: in the last quarterly performance statistics released by the Home Office, Wiltshire probation service was ranked the best in the country for public protection, the national service’s highest priority, which is excellent news. Taking all measures of performance together, Wiltshire tops the south-west regional league table, as well as being ranked third out of 42 probation areas in England and Wales. I want to thank my local probation service and praise its members for their hard work. I was pleased that the Minister also thanked the probation service earlier this evening. The debate is an opportunity for Members in all parts of the House to recognise the important and hard work that probation officers do.

I seek reassurance that the Bill will allow my probation officers in Wiltshire the freedom and support to carry on their work, and that the change from probation board to probation trust will be phased so as not to unsettle the good results. I was heartened to hear my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary say that he would proceed in a cautious fashion. That is good news. From the Wiltshire board, I have received the message that uncertainty about the possibility of competition and contracting out of services is undermining morale in the system. I hope that proceeding in a cautious fashion will build up that morale again.

The continuing drive for competition is creating concern that the agenda is the privatisation of service delivery. I see the Minister shaking his head. I do not believe that privatisation is the intention, but the fear exists and we must address it. The evidence is that competition in the connected field of prisons contributed to efficiency savings of up to 8.5 per cent., so equivalent efficiency savings in the probation service might amount to only about £8 million per year over 25 years. We must weigh those savings against the risks to the probation service, decide whether they are worth while and, if so, whether we can take the service with us.

Under the proposed arrangements, the public sector provider will undergo testing to assess its performance. Will the Minister reassure me that, as I believe to be the
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case, where public sector providers excel and improve as in Wiltshire, there will be no need for competition and contracting out of services? Will he also provide me with the facts that contradict the argument that the private and voluntary sector will refuse the more difficult areas, leaving the existing services carrying the can for the most serious cases? We need reassurance about that.

As well as managing the most dangerous criminals, the probation service deals with people who have committed low-level crime. Hon. Members across the House may be aware of a national scheme which sees offenders paying back their crimes with community work. Community Payback is a programme of community service works undertaken across Wiltshire which amount to around 75,000 hours every year. The projects involve work that would not otherwise be carried out. I have seen the programme in operation when visiting community facilities and I was pleased to see young offenders participating in gardening schemes, which as a keen gardener I know can only be to their good and to their credit. I hope that they carry on with their gardening after they have completed their punishment. In fact, I do not understand why gardening is intended to be a punishment. The scheme is hard work, but in the end the result benefits the local community and I support it wholeheartedly.

Community payback schemes enable members of the public to nominate projects that offenders can undertake as part of their sentence. It is about encouraging people to feel involved in and informed about what goes on in their neighbourhoods. As a result, local voluntary organisations benefit. It would be great if we had a two-way process, with voluntary organisations working proactively with and contributing to the probation service.

Graffiti is a perfect example of where community payback should be concentrated. The task of graffiti removal can be performed with relatively little training, as the Prime Minister demonstrated in my constituency earlier this year, and there is evidence that crime levels drop in areas where it is removed. Graffiti makes criminals feel at home—that is why we do not want it in Swindon. It is a complex problem with complex solutions. We must focus on delivering the services needed to prevent graffiti offenders from repeating their crimes by encouraging organisations to work more closely together. Wiltshire probation service already works in partnership with the police, courts, prisons, local authorities, health services and voluntary organisations on problems such as graffiti. There is always scope for improvement. The probation board could work better with the voluntary sector, and other probation boards could learn from Wiltshire’s good results to date.

Lastly, there is the problem of perceived erosion of accountability. Today I received a letter from a magistrate and long-term member of the Wiltshire probation board who is worried that improved local accountability—an area that the Government have prioritised in the past 10 years—will suffer, and who argues that much cherished localness will be lost in the forest of new legislation that is proposed. Having spoken to probation board members, I understand that the big problems have been a lack
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of clarity from the Home Office, uncertainty about change, and the complexity of structures that are changing without clear objectives. We must clear the mists and make these issues understandable; otherwise, perceptions could damage what would otherwise be a very good Bill.

We should value the probation service as a profession and protect the pay and conditions of staff accordingly. This is a time of uncertainty in which staff and board members feel as though they are in the dock. I am sure that the Minister will join me in reasserting our support for them and for the work that they continue to do to make us safer.

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