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8.42 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove), whose arguments I followed closely. I would adhere to many of them, but I am bit less charitable as regards the direction in which the Bill takes us. My hon. Friend the Minister, who is a good trade unionist, has tried hard to deal with the many fears that my hon. Friends have expressed. I give him 10 out of 10 for trying, but we have yet to be convinced.

I apologise for having come in and out of the Chamber during the debate, but I think that it has three key points. First, there is the role of the voluntary sector. I am pleased that the voluntary sector wishes to engage with this process, but I am surprised that it thinks that it is being given a role that it could not already be playing. In my own county, it already plays a major role in the relationship with professional and statutory organisations in the field of criminal justice. What does it want to do that it could not sign up to already?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks about my being a trier. He will have seen the briefing from Turning Point, which tackles many of the issues that he mentions. It is concerned that not enough is being done to ensure that the underlying causes of crime are tackled by the probation service. Turning Point, which is a well respected organisation, says that it can do much more but is not allowed to do it.

Mr. Drew: I hear what my hon. Friend says. Statutory underpinning of what organisations can be asked to do makes a difference. They will be held to account—that happens already through the contractual and compliance arrangements that we ask many voluntary sector organisations to undertake. My fear is that the voluntary sector, which is already involved, could try to do even more, and, if it fails, we are left in the unpalatable position of deciding who will fill the vacuum.

In those circumstances, we could go back to the public sector, but Governments of both parties do not have a great history of reverting to the public sector when other agencies fail. I wish it were otherwise. One example is the railways—perhaps we will learn our lessons and one day get back to proper public ownership. However, we are left with a genuine dilemma: if the voluntary sector took on some of the responsibilities and subsequently failed, it is obvious who would want to fill the vacuum. I want to warn the
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voluntary sector that it should not be seduced into believing that it can accept such responsibilities because, if it fails, we all suffer. The Government have to persuade the likes of me that there is no real danger of following that route.

The two main points have already been considered at length so I shall not take up hon. Members’ time for more than a few minutes to labour them. However, it is important to stress them because some of us have considerable misgivings about where we are going with the Bill.

The first anxiety is loss of local accountability. By chance, two weeks ago, I attended a meeting of the criminal justice team in Gloucestershire. It was an important meeting because all the different agencies and a good number of Members of Parliament were there. However, we were faced by the problem that the court system will no longer be on a county basis because it will link with Wiltshire and Avon. It will therefore have no special locus standi in Gloucestershire. The police were at the meeting and, in a sense, they won the battle to remain a county force, but they are subject to a probationary period to ascertain whether their level 2 policing requirement can be fulfilled at county level. One cannot, therefore, feel assured that the police will remain at the level of location that some of us want.

The probation service will form at least some sort of regional organisation. Our criminal justice team in Gloucestershire has not been an unalloyed success until comparatively recently. However, our recent record on offending rates—and, dare I say it, reoffending rates—has been reasonably successful. As other colleagues who also have misgivings said, if it ain’t broke, why are we trying to fix it? We have fixed matters rather well and it is disillusioning when people who have made things work are told, “Thanks a lot, but we’re bringing in the new team.”

The most galling aspect has been seeing the views of my friends who work for the probation service change. They began by being supportive of many things that the Government have done and the money that has been put in, and to watch that view change to downright hostility has been shocking. It is hard to share time with those people when they feel that they have been sold down the river. It will take much time, notwithstanding the Bill, to rebuild some of the bridges. They certainly need to be rebuilt.

Those of us who have difficulties with the Bill feel most strongly about the second point, which is contestability. I wish that there were a charitable explanation and that the reason for it was trying to find other organisations that could work in partnership. I have said that the voluntary sector could already do the things that we want it to do. Why do we want it to do more? The idea of partnership is well ensconced. There must be partnership because the state sector has always acknowledged that it cannot deliver alone the sort of criminal justice system that we want. However, we come back to contestability. There are many ways in which we could describe it, for example, outsourcing.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman; he is coming to the most important part of his speech. Does not he agree that the business about the voluntary sector is the
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merest fig leaf? It gives ambitious young Back Benchers who want to read out briefing notes scope to talk endlessly about the voluntary sector, but never mention the private sector. Yet it is private sector involvement that gives most of us cause for concern about the Bill.

Mr. Drew: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I am certainly not reading out pre-prepared notes, and my promotion prospects are —[Interruption.] My notes are just a few scribbles, and not from anyone else.

Although we have had an interesting debate, I have been concerned at the stereotypical arguments that have been presented from all sides. That has worried me, because I do not know whether there has been a genuine debate. We have had three to four years of discussion. As I said, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on how he has worked hard to convince us, but there has not been a genuine debate on the issues. Some of us would like to see, up front, evidence for the need to make such changes before being asked to vote for them.

David Taylor: My hon. Friend travels in the south-west a great deal. During those travels, has he come across a large host of commercial organisations that are anxious to manage Gloucestershire’s offending population and see the market potential in the mentally confused, the addicted alcoholic and the deviant? If he has, does he expect them to be able to release the angel in the block of marble, as it were?

Mr. Drew: I cannot answer my hon. Friend, as I certainly have not found organisations keen to get involved in that. No doubt there are such organisations, but they may come from far away. That is always a danger. As I said earlier, the worry is that if the voluntary sector fails, the private sector will try to succeed; if that fails, we will be left in great difficulties because we will have broken the system.

I leave my hon. Friend the Minister with the thought that contestability is at the kernel of my opposition to how the Bill is currently framed. What really disappoints me is the notion that underwrites the whole approach to NOMS: that the probation service can be dispensed with—that it is, in a sense, past its sell-by date and can easily be merged into the wider prison service.

From talking to members of the probation service and visiting prisons, as we all do to talk to constituents or to draw evidence of what is happening in our penal service, my concern has always been about mixing up those who work in prison, and those who work outside it, but with the same people. I have worried that that will mean that staff lose flexibility to represent people in a different way.

Nowhere in the Bill do I see any recognition of the dangers to which that may lead. Probation officers have always felt nervous about the whole concept of NOMS. That does not mean that in principle I am against some re-linking of our prisons with the probation service outside. However, the idea behind NOMS—that we assimilate everything into one system—has always led me to worry that we are adopting an untested, certainly untried, approach, which, if we go along the contestability route, will be unacceptable.

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8.54 pm

Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): I, too, apologise to the House for not having been present for the whole debate.

I should like to make a few short remarks. First, I want to refer to a meeting that I had with probation officers in my constituency and the chief probation officer for Humberside. Secondly, I want say something about the voluntary sector; perhaps I will be classed as an ambitious Back Bencher for doing so, but I have seen in my constituency the excellent work that that sector performs, and I want that to increase in Humberside probation services. Thirdly, I want to refer to the wider perspective, and the concerns of all parts of our society about dealing with offenders and making sure that offending rates go down.

Last Friday I had a meeting with four probation officers in my constituency: Alan Cotterell, Glynis Barber, Anita Oliver and Kate Gosforth. All are excellent probation officers, committed to providing the very best for the people whom they serve. I was incredibly impressed by the passionate way in which they talked about their jobs, their interest in the wider community and their wish to ensure that their area was as safe and secure as possible. They told me about the intensive training that they had undergone, and expressed the view that the probation officer’s job has become harder in recent years. They talked about the work that they must do with violent and sexual offenders, and the particular responsibilities that they have. They also told me that my area contains one of the largest numbers of high-risk offenders in the country. They feel under pressure—they feel that they have a very hard job to do—but I believe that they do an excellent job.

Those probation officers had some worries about the Bill. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will deal with them when he sums up the debate. A major worry concerned clear, open communication: they feared that the current good communication channels might cease as a result of some of the Bill’s provisions. They mentioned fragmentation, to which some Members have referred today, and said that they feared the new trusts might mean the loss of local accountability. They were especially anxious that trust boards should contain local sentencers, and I want to be reassured that that will happen. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) mentioned cherry-picking, and that is also of concern to probation officers. I hope that the Minister will deal with all those matters.

Steve Hemming is Humberside’s chief probation officer. I went to see him a few weeks ago to talk about the Bill, and to hear his professional opinion of the issues raised in it. I was struck when he told me that Humberside—for once—has one of the best-performing probation boards in the country. Unfortunately, as a Hull Member I am used to being told that we are at the bottom of every league table when we should be at the top, and at the top of every league table when we should be at the bottom. I was very pleased to learn that Humberside was doing so well in the performance indicators.

As I have said, I was impressed by the committed public servants whom I met last Friday and by the valuable work that they do, but reoffending rates are an issue in Hull, in Humberside and in the rest of the
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country. When I talk to my constituents, they raise the issue of public confidence in our criminal justice system. I think it irresponsible of politicians to pretend that we can continue with the status quo. We cannot: we must get reoffending rates down and public confidence levels up.

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): I am sure that, having listened to so much of the debate so far, the hon. Lady accepts that no Member on either side of the House denies that reoffending rates are too high and that more must be done to lower them. Perhaps she will help to educate the House by explaining precisely what the Bill will allow people to do to improve the position. Those of us with misgivings believe that much of the good work she has described, especially work in the voluntary sector, is already being done, and that the Bill will not allow the sector to do more than it is already doing.

Ms Johnson: I take issue with the hon. Gentleman on that. I believe that the voluntary sector is not being used as much or as effectively as it could be. I object to the view expressed by, in particular, some members of the Opposition parties that it is impossible to innovate, change or try different ways of operating when there are real problems like very high reoffending rates.

I am a great fan of the voluntary and community sectors. I think that they can often reach the parts that the statutory sector cannot reach. Let me say a few words about two organisations in my constituency which I think could contribute even more to making our criminal justice system work more effectively. The first of them is Humbercare. Interestingly, it grew out of the local probation service. It is a voluntary community-sector organisation in Hull and Humberside that provides mentoring services to offenders. It is recognised as doing some excellent work, but there is still more that it could do. If it were given the opportunity, it could provide a wider range of services for offenders. It is an excellent example of a voluntary sector organisation that is currently underused. The Bill will allow direct commissioning to take place. That is what I am interested in. That is why I want to mention Humbercare and another organisation, Compass, which provides excellent voluntary sector provision to do with drugs and drug rehabilitation. It could be directly commissioned to work with offenders. It is not being directly commissioned at present; it has not got a direct contract. It can only be subcontracted through the local probation board. There is more room for manoeuvre in this regard. When we talk to probation officers, as I did last Friday, they make it clear that there is scope for such organisations to do much more directly.

Anne Snelgrove: Does my hon. Friend agree that the best probation services in the country—such as mine and hers—are undertaking the type of work and partnerships that she is giving examples of, but they are entirely voluntary? They are not necessarily being taken up by all probation services across the country to the extent that we would like. The Bill ensures that such partnerships will be enshrined in law.

Ms Johnson: Absolutely; my hon. Friend makes that point very well.

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The debate being skewed into a discussion about only the private sector gives me another cause for concern. As we have heard, a huge number of national and local organisations currently provide services, but they could do more. That is particularly the case in my area, Hull, which is geographically quite an isolated part of the country. We will be looking very much to local organisations to provide services. My passion is the voluntary and community sector. I am not speaking for big business at all. I want the people and groups who are providing good services at present through the third sector to be encouraged and supported. I feel that such groups could make a real difference to probation services and the criminal justice system.

I also want to talk about the wider perspective that we all must have in respect of the criminal justice system. A few months ago, a probation officer came to my surgery to talk about problems to do with housing offenders when they come out of prison. I was disappointed by some of the attitudes to rehousing offenders expressed by some of the housing officers at my local authority. All the partners in the community need to work in a much more joined-up way—to use an old-fashioned phrase—to make sure that we are serious about providing people with a home and with employment, because they are the key issues that need to be addressed when someone comes out of prison.

As a number of Members have said, mental health is an area that the criminal justice system has still not got right. We need to link up with the mental health trusts and to work with the mental health charities and the voluntary sector, which provide a way of reaching people who have mental health problems and who should not be in the criminal justice system at all.

Since becoming the MP for Kingston upon Hull, North, I have had a couple of opportunities to visit Hull prison, and I was very impressed by the governor, Steve Tilley—who, unfortunately, has moved on. He did a lot of excellent work on developing education and basic skills and on making sure that inmates had an opportunity to try some basic plumbing, electrical work and painting and decorating. That gives them a taster of what they could do when they leave prison. The librarian there is also committed to trying to help people to deal with such basic skills issues. Such matters cannot be left to the probation service alone, as far more than probation issues are at stake. Local authorities, mental health trusts, primary care trusts and local authority education departments all have a role to play.

The probation officer who came to see me last Friday said that she believed that probation was the glue that held the criminal justice system together, which clearly shows how she feels about her job. She is trying to hold it all together, doing an excellent job and playing a pivotal role, but I am sure that she would agree that there are new ways of working and different ways of getting to reoffenders. We have got to be innovative—it is no good just doing the same thing over and over again because it has been done for 20 years. We need to —[Interruption.] Unfortunately, the Liberal Democrats are always very good at wanting to maintain the status quo and not innovate, thereby not addressing the real concerns of our constituents. They are concerned —[Interruption.]

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Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. If the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) wishes to intervene, he knows the procedure to do so.

Ms Johnson: Thank you for that, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I will finish on that point. There is nothing else that I wish to say.

9.6 pm

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): I apologise for not being present throughout the debate, although I was here at the beginning.

I have been listening to the debate here in the Chamber and in my office, and it is clear to me that the current system is not working. Despite the extra probation officers and the additional funding provided to the service, we still face high reoffending levels and a failure to progress with the new offender management initiatives.

On reading the Bill, I contrasted the creativity and innovation of the voluntary sector in my constituency—as exemplified by community service volunteers, who are working positively, constructively and highly effectively with long-term offenders—with the negative response that such volunteers received from my local probation service and its management, who failed to understand the role of community service volunteers, behaved very negatively towards them and the voluntary agency that they were working with, and failed to support and nurture that sector. The Bill will give a clear steer to the probation service in my constituency that such support is what we are looking for.

I do not want to repeat the catalogue of errors and misrepresentations by the management of my local probation service, but it does not give the impression of an organisation keen to work creatively in partnership with the voluntary sector. I am aware that there are many hard-working and dedicated probation officers in my constituency—people with years of experience of working with offenders, and with close contacts in the prison, police and local authority networks. I understand their anxieties and fears about the Bill’s proposals.

Having seen at first hand the outcome of the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990, which opened up the nursing, residential and domiciliary care services to the private and voluntary sectors, I know that without clear standards, regulation, inspection and monitoring, services can become budget and profit-driven, rather than outcome-driven. There is no doubt that it took the introduction—by this Government—of the Care Standards Act 2000 to address the damage resulting from the opening of these markets. We still have some way to go to ensure that providers meet the standards that the public have a right to expect in the nursing, domiciliary and residential care sector. That must be of concern to us all.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; I want to be consistent in dealing with the various themes. She will know that we are going to retain the existing inspection regimes. The independent inspector of prisons and the independent inspector of probation will monitor the performance of whoever provides the service.

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