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11 Dec 2006 : Column 669

Mrs. Moon: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention; I was about to acknowledge that point, and to say that it had given me confidence about the proposals in the Bill.

Regulation and inspection will play a critical part in the monitoring of the new providers entering the field following this Bill. It is equally clear that contract specifications will have to set out the tasks, training, outcomes and partnership expectations for the new providers and I am especially pleased to have had those reassurances.

I had been concerned by statements in the briefings that hon. Members have received from NAPO, in particular its fears about clause 8 and that the inspectorate for the probation market, if implemented, will become over-bureaucratic and will find its job extremely difficult when trying to inspect multiple suppliers. However, the inspection of multiple suppliers is a task carried out successfully by the Commission for Social Care Inspection and by the Care Standards Inspectorate for Wales every day. I fail to see why the inspectorate for the probation market should not also be able to carry out that task.

We need to have a rigorous system for the registration of, and contracting with, providers seeking to move into this area. We also need systems to monitor, inspect and remove failing providers, operating to clearly established standards and outcomes.

David Taylor: The Government have hung their hat on a heroic leap into the dark by asserting that opening the probation service up to the private sector, as well as the public sector, will reduce recidivism rates in the medium term. Does my hon. Friend expect that the agreements and frameworks that she describes will contain as performance indicators a requirement that recidivism rates will be reduced? If not, what will the Government do about it?

Mrs. Moon: I assume that the requirement will be built into contracts and that the Government will closely monitor and observe the success rates of the services in much the same way as probation officers are monitored and required to meet targets. Indeed, they have failed to meet those targets.

We cannot retain the present system alone if we are to tackle the current failure to support the large number of offenders suffering from mental health problems and drug and alcohol addition; if we are to offer accommodation and support to prisoners on release from prison; and if we are to offer support to young men from ethnic minorities to find a new life and new models of problem solving.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): My hon. Friend has waxed lyrical about the role of the voluntary sector, which nobody would decry. Indeed, it is possible to have the massive involvement of the voluntary sector under the present system. What would the private sector bring to probation, given that most of the private sector providers will simply employ people who have been trained by the existing probation service, albeit on worse rates of pay and conditions?


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Mrs. Moon: I intend to address that point in a moment, if my hon. Friend will bear with me.

The Bill aims to open up the monopoly of probation to new ideas and thinking, in a partnership of equals. I have grave concerns about the claims by NAPO that police and prison services will be unwilling to co-operate if multiple supervision is introduced or if private sector companies become involved in the supervision of high risk offenders. I would welcome a response from my hon. Friend the Minister on the likelihood of the police being unwilling to co-operate in working with the private sector. That suggestion must be addressed.

I cannot agree that this Bill will result in chaos, less co-operation, silo mentalities, and an overly bureaucratic and impossible-to-manage system. In my constituency, I have Parc prison, which is managed by Group 4. I acknowledge that in its initial years the prison had problems, but there are state sector prisons that have had problems for many years. I now see, especially in the Parc supporting families group, good examples of partnership working between the police, prison staff, the probation service, the local authority and the voluntary sector. In setting up our new relationships with the private sector, we may have to be absolutely clear about our expectations for the operation of partnerships and the production of the outcomes we want.

Success is possible and we can demonstrate it. In particular, I welcome the commitment to slow implementation of the proposed changes. If the pace of change is slow, there will be time for the changes to bed in and for the problems to be solved. I welcome the commitment to training, regulation and inspection. I welcome the voluntary sector’s innovation and creativity in offender management. As the Bill progresses, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to address the anxieties of the probation service and the fears about the erosion of local accountability. Let us hope that through the Bill we will better serve the persistent reoffenders whom the present system is not best serving.

9.16 pm

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): It has certainly been another week to forget for the Home Office. In the past few days, the Government’s flagship policy to combat antisocial behaviour has been shown to be failing, with six in 10 antisocial behaviour orders being breached. In its autumn performance report, the Home Office announced that it was failing to meet its own crime and reoffending targets on a range of issues, and the perception of crime among communities throughout the country is on the rise, with heightened expectations of yobbish behaviour on the streets.

Based on the contributions from the Labour Benches this evening, it does not look as though things are getting any better for the Home Office. The hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mike Wood) made a powerful speech, delivering a devastating critique of the Government’s handling of the probation service. He talked about the undermining of the service. His comments were backed up by the contribution of the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), who challenged the Government’s figures and the targets set
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for the probation service. In particular, he asked for evidence about how the Bill would cut reoffending rates, as indicated in the regulatory impact assessment. Certainly, it would be useful to take evidence on that matter in Committee, using the new procedures for Bill Committees. It is a pity that the Home Secretary has set his face against any evidence sessions, possibly for fear of what they might reveal.

The more traditional message of complete and utter hostility to any private sector provision was most aptly demonstrated by the contribution of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). Things did not get much better in the speech of the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), who, despite his offer of some Christmas cheer for Members on the Treasury Bench, condemned the lack of local accountability in the Bill and highlighted his opposition.

Further probing questions were put by the hon. Members for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew). Despite the best efforts of the hon. Members for Preston (Mr. Hendrick), for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) and for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) to strike a slightly more supportive tone, a clear impression of disquiet on the Labour Benches has been given.

As we have heard from several speakers, the problem is that the Bill still requires significant amendment if it is to help rather than hinder improvement in protecting the public and make a real difference in addressing current reoffending rates. The probation service has been racked with change and uncertainty over the Government’s time in office, which has damaged morale and undermined the focus of the service. The position was summarised well in the other place by Lord Ramsbotham, the former chief inspector of prisons, when he said of the service:

As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) made clear, the service is struggling to cope with the demands on it, with 150 staff short in London and 1,000 vacancies nationally. My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) highlighted some of the practical problems of providing court reports and set out the issues that might result from the shortages.

Against that backdrop of uncertainty, instability and overstretch, we have seen case after case in which criminals under the supervision of the probation service have gone on to commit murder, rape and a host of other serious offences. The Government have used that damning picture to put the focus on the probation service and the need for the wholesale reform before us today.

However, it was a serious mistake, in view of the impact on morale, for the Home Secretary to make his scathing comments to prisoners in Wormwood Scrubs. I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) rightly argued that our debate on the Bill should not be about bashing the probation service. Conservative Members certainly recognise the hard work, service and commitment of probation officers and the difficult challenges that they face. I acknowledge that the Minister made similar points in an earlier intervention.


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The Government are less keen to draw attention to a criminal justice system that promotes the early release of those in custody while prisons are bursting at the seams and the introduction of a Human Rights Act 1998 that has led to such confusion within the system that steps have to be taken to ensure that officials do not put the interests of convicted criminals before the protection of the public.

Mr. Sutcliffe: So that the House has it right, are the Conservative Opposition saying that they are against home detention curfew and would scrap the scheme?

James Brokenshire: No, we certainly do not wish to scrap that scheme. It is interesting, however, that the Minister does not rise to talk about the Human Rights Act, which I mentioned, or the need for additional steps to be taken by his Department to ensure that officials interpret it correctly rather than put the public under threat.

Launching the Bill, the Minister said in a Home Office press release of 23 November 2006:

yet it is completely silent on the much vaunted National Offender Management Service, which is supposed to be co-ordinating the end-to-end management of offenders and helping to facilitate the changes necessary to protect the public and reduce rates of reoffending. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) highlighted the lack of certainty about the role of NOMS, in spite of all the questions that he put to the Home Office. The lack of proper answers and the lack of a proper statutory footing pose many questions, which have certainly not been answered in this evening’s debate.

There has been a lot of debate this evening about the issue of contestability or the role of the private sector and the third sector in the provision of probation services. Conservative Members have no fundamental objection to giving contracts to non-state organisations for the running of facilities and services, provided they are within a clear and robust framework, a model to deliver sustained improvements and a structure that best meets local needs. However, the top-down centralised structure proposed by the Government would appear actively to militate against a system capable of reflecting the needs and requirements of specific localities and against ensuring the provision of services to small charities. It is also difficult to see how the Government’s proposed system would promote and strengthen much needed multi-agency partnership working to ensure that outcomes improve. It was interesting to hear the Home Secretary emphasise his desire to break up monopolies, as he seems to want to entrench an almost monopolistic power for himself.

In any contractual framework, it is essential to have consistency and continuity, as was argued by the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth). It is also vital for faith groups, small charities, employers and others to have a stable local partner to which they can anchor, but given that there is no assurance that probation trusts will even remain in existence, it is unclear how they can provide such continuity. It would be absurd to think that regional offender managers could fulfil that role.


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We have already mentioned the problem of the lack of a business plan and the lack of evidence needed to support the Government’s provisions. My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) raised that point and also rightly emphasised the need for partnership working in the community and the essential work that he has seen from the involvement of various charitable sectors in his field. That point was also taken up by the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) in her contribution. She drew on the experience of local groups, and it certainly sounded as though they were undertaking very valuable and important work in her community.

The debate leads us to conclude that the structure is short on detail and lacking in planning and clarity and that opaqueness is increasing in the system. Who will be responsible? The Bill is more about blurring the lines of accountability. There is perhaps the suggestion that the intention is to blur the lines when trying to find out who is to blame when things go wrong. Rather than sharing responsibility, as we would wish, the Bill gives the impression of creating more deniability than contestability. We have focused very closely on that aspect of the Bill, but there are other important provisions that deal with the management of offenders while in custody.

My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) highlighted some of his concerns about the handling of young offenders and the operation of early release arrangements. Those points were powerfully put, and I am sure that we will return to some of those important issues later in the Bill’s progress. My hon. Friend also made some important points on the need for vocational training and basic skills in the prison environment, particularly in the context of short sentences—a point that was further developed by my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley).

The Bill provides the opportunity to draw together and harness the strengths and skills of the public, voluntary and private sectors in the delivery of a strong and cohesive probation service—a service that has the protection of the public at its heart, that promotes the partnership working needed to deliver long-term reductions in reoffending and that can play its part in the end-to-end management of criminals in the justice system, which we would all like to be achieved. However, we believe that the Bill in its current form fails to meet those objectives properly, and we will use the debates in Committee and on Report to put those priorities at the forefront, to ensure that the needs and aspirations of public are addressed by clear, robust and deliverable proposals.

We give the Bill our conditional support, but that support is predicated on the basis that the Government listen to the serious and considered criticisms that have been made of their proposals and act to address the abundant problems that have been exposed already. If changes are not made, if sketchy details are not fleshed out and if macho posturing gets in the way of serious reflection on the weaknesses and failures inherent in their plans, the proper needs and demands of the public will have been ignored. In those circumstances, we will have no hesitation in rejecting the Bill.


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9.28 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): This has been a very useful debate in which many important points have been made. Public protection, public safety and a rebalancing of the criminal justice system lie at the heart of what we are trying to achieve in the Home Office. The Bill is a vital tool in enabling us to work together to achieve what I assume we all want: a probation sector that is fully equipped to meet the considerable challenges ahead and to deliver the services that the public deserve—services that will reduce crime, protect the public and lead to fewer victims.

I acknowledge and recognise the vast experience that exists among hon. Members on both sides of the House, as shown in the worthwhile contributions that have been made. There are many principled positions held by hon. Members. I say to my right hon. and hon. Friends that I am well aware of the emotion involved in the issues that they raise and of the support that they have given to the probation service and in particular to the trade union, the National Association of Probation Officers, in terms of protecting its membership. I understand the role of the trade union in that circumstance.

Let us look at the principled position of the three main parties. The Government are trying to bring forward methods to try to tackle reoffending and to cut the reoffending rates, which—whatever the figures—we all agree are far too high. But look at the official Opposition. Talk about opportunism. [ Interruption. ] The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) spoke at the NAPO conference and indicated and implied that the Opposition would oppose the Bill.

Mr. Garnier: The Minister needs to be a little careful, because he was not there. I was, and I remember precisely what I said. I said that, since we had not seen the Bill, it was going to be rather difficult to form an opinion then. We have since seen it and since the Government so desperately need our help—he has only to look behind him—he had better not be too rude; otherwise he might lose it.

Mr. Sutcliffe: Talk about macho posturing. I was a little concerned earlier, at the opening of the debate, when the hon. and learned Gentleman talked about chivvying the Government along. That may be a new offence, if we are not careful.

Mr. Gerrard: As my hon. Friend knows, I was at the NAPO conference when the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) was speaking. He did his best to give every impression to the members of the probation service that the Conservative party would oppose the Bill, without committing himself at all.


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