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I congratulate the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on his work to bring
about the previous group of amendments. I also thank the Minister for his acceptance, via the Government new clauses, of the ideas that came forward from the hon. Gentleman.
I will be as brief as I can because we are very short of time, given that this group has to be dealt with by about 2.15 pm. I hope that truncating my remarks will not cause the House to misunderstand my enthusiasm for the arguments that I am advancing or their validity.
I want to start by correcting something that I got wrong in a Westminster Hall debate on 6 February. I misattributed a quotation by Mr. Erwin James, The Guardian journalist, who had written a foreword to a Prison Reform Trust report on mental health among adult male prisoners, to my close friend, Jonathan Aitken. I thus wish to apologise to Mr. Erwin James.
I wish to speak to new clause 2 and amendment No. 9, which I tabled. I will leave it to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) to speak to amendments Nos. 4 and 5, which he tabled. If I may, however, I will comment briefly on amendment No. 18, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). The amendment would insert a provision in schedule 1 about the need for local government to have a presence on probation trusts. The idea is sensible, but I am not quite sure that the amendment goes far enough. I ask him to consider whether one councillor is sufficient to act as the representative of the electorate of big population areas, such as Greater London, and counties with big populations, such as Kent. I think that he probably agrees that that is not the case, but nevertheless I applaud him at least for raising that flag up the mast. We will hear a little more about the amendment from him.
Let me concentrate on my partys new clause and amendment. I will not take long over this because the difference between our position and that of the Government is clearor at least it ought to be by now. Our new clause and amendment would overturn the top-down management of the commissioning and procurement of probation services, whether they are provided through the state sector, the private and commercial sector, the third sectorcharitable agenciesor the not-for-profit sector. We want to bed down involvement in the communities, which is why we think that each probation trust should
provide a plan for the forthcoming financial year at least four months before the commencement of that year
and that each trust should set out in its plan
its anticipated probation services needs.
A trust would have to set out in the plan who needed to receive probation services and the sort of services that would be required. A trust would have to think about young offenders and adult offendersmale and female. It would also have to consider offenders whom the courts would probably not send into custody and those who would need supervision following their release from custody. Some 500 prisoners leave the prison estate lawfully on every working day of the week, so an enormous number of people will need supervision following their release from custody. Some will be serious offenders. Some will be on parole, while others will be on licence as life sentence defendants. However, all will need care and supervision from the
probation services, and it is our contention that a trust should set out in its plan the anticipated needs of the probation services.
Equally importantly, the trust should tell us and the Home Secretary
from whom it proposes to commission services.
Although we are at one with the Government on this matter, there is a clear distinction between the view of some hon. Members and that of us and the Government about the source of probation services. We do not have a philosophical or political objection to probation services being provided from outside the existing probation servicethe body itself. However, we think that it should be up to the trust to identify the sources of its probation services. The engine roomthe directing mindfor the identification of the types of services required and the people and agencies from whom those services will be required should be in the locality, rather than at the top.
Under the Bill, it will be for the Home Secretary, via his agentsthe regional offender managersto decide what is appropriate. We say that that is the wrong way round. In a conference at Local Government House just before Christmas, the Minister and I had a question and answer sessionI asked the questions and he gave the answers. I asked him to whom a regional offender manager would be accountable. I had hoped that he would say, To the people of the locality. His answer came: no, he or she will be accountable and responsible to the chief executive of the offender management service and, through him or her, to the Home Secretary. That neatly describes the difference between the Government and us and illustrates why we believe that new clause 2 is necessary.
Mr. Sutcliffe: Will the hon. and learned Gentleman explain why the Local Government Association, which has Conservative members, now supports the Bills principles of local accountability?
Mr. Garnier: That is to elide a huge amount of concern within the LGA. It does not support the principles. For example, it is concerned about the lack of local government representation on probation boards. That is why the Liberal Democrats have tabled amendment No. 18. The LGA is not convinced that this top-down model is the way forward. Indeed, it is hardly surprising that people who have been elected to serve on local authorities would far rather see themselves, as the most local representatives of their area, having the input into the probation trusts decisions than the Home Secretary, through his agents.
Mr. Heath: Does the hon. and learned Gentleman interpret the Ministers intervention as an intention to accept my amendment No. 18? It is clear that the Local Government Associations support is entirely dependent on that amendment being passed, as is clear in the briefing that it has produced.
Mr. Garnier: I do not dare try to interpret what goes on in the Ministers mind, but he will no doubt let us know in a moment.
I want to pray in aid some other peoples views. The Howard League for Penal Reform said:
The regional structure will prevent most voluntary organisations, which operate on a local scale, from bidding...The regional structure will threaten local relationships with MPs, councils and small groups...The judiciary will be cut out of the management of community sentences as they will not sit on the new management trusts as it would be a conflict for magistrates or judges to award contracts to private companies to run sentences to which they had sent people. This means that JPs and judges would not be accountable for outcomes of sentences, a bizarre and retrograde step.
Whether or not one agrees with the aims of the Howard League, that seems to demonstrate that the current arrangements in the Bill will not meet local need.
I dare say that the Minister will say in response to this debate that clause 2(4) says:
The Secretary of State shall at least once in every year consult such persons as he thinks fit about the provision that should be made for the following year for the purposes mentioned in subsection (1).
The Secretary of State has form when it comes to explaining what he thinks fit, and consultation is not his watchword. One would think that a Home Secretary who wanted to consult, for example, the probation service, would have called in its officers, or even been to the annual conference of the National Association of Probation Officers or the Probation Boards Association to explain his views and hear theirs. But he did not. He went to Wormwood Scrubs, a prison, where he unburdened himself to an uninvited audience, that is to say the inmates
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): A captive audience.
Mr. Garnier: Indeed. The Home Secretary gave the probation service a premeditated kicking in front of the very audience who, one would have thought, needed to be persuaded that the probation servicesby that I mean with a small p and sshould be respected and encouraged, but that is not his style.
We know from the Home Secretarys letter to members of the Public Bill Committee that he has attempted to appear emollient, but his real style is to be found in the way that he approached the Home Office in the first place, crashing in like a bull in a china shop, breaking the furniture and generally causing mayhem, and then complaining that nothing and nobody works. We know that his real style is to be found in the article that he wrote for The Daily Telegraph on 26 February in which he roundly abuses anybody he can reach with his pen, accuses my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition of hypocrisy and then says, But I do hope that youll be supporting me. It really will not do. If we have a control freak running the system, a man who is given to abuse and throwing his weightsuch as it isaround to get his way, we cannot have much faith in the words as he thinks fit when it comes to consultation.
I know that time is short and others wish to speak, so with those few words I want to persuade the House that although the Home Secretary is, from time to time and with one part of his personality, offering us fig leaves and palm olives, with the other part of his personality, which he reveals daily, he is abusive, he is a
control freak and he wants, through the Bill, to have micro-management, on a top-down basis, of the provision of probation services. That is retrograde, and we urge the House to support the new clause and amendment No. 9.
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): One of the proclaimed important aims of the Bill is to establish the end-to-end management of sentences for offenders. Most people say that that would be a good thing, and they include the many probation officers in Staffordshire who have lobbied me in support of their union, NAPO, which opposes many other things in the Bill. Everybody says that end-to-end management would be a good thing.
The Secretary of State already has ultimate responsibility for the Prison Service, and as we will see when we reach clause 3, prison officers will become part of the National Offender Management Service. The plan is that the Secretary of State will also have ultimate responsibility for the probation service, which brings together lines of accountability. We are concerned today about the public accountability and consultation processes in the service, from top to bottom. We would not say, would we, that the Prison Service as it is run at present is a good example of public accountability and consultation at the local level, however good its serviceand it certainly is good at Stafford prison in my constituency. We are looking for something better.
The Bill requires, at a national level, the Secretary of State to consult every year, and that is a good thing. I point out that many of those who contribute to providing offender management are not in the service. The national health service provides mental health treatment, drink and substance abuse services, and speech and language therapies, in which some hon. Members are especially interested. The NHS is a huge contributor from outside the service. Another is the Learning and Skills Council, which nationally and regionally provides skills, training and education and funds many services for offenders. Another good example is local authorities, which, in their supporting people programme provide supported housing. All those examples show why it is important for there to be consultation and accountability at the national level and at the regional level, because the NHS, local authorities and the Learning and Skills Councils all have a regional presence.
In a letter from the Minister to members of the Public Bill Committee there is an assurance that, at the regional level, the new regional offender managers will consult organisations such as learning and skills councils, Government offices of the regions, strategic health authorities and local government regional associations. That is all very good, but perhaps the Minister could say a little more about why those do not appear in the Bill if we are to accept that there will be good, strong regional accountability and consultation.
We then come to the local level, and the Minister has a good story to tell, but it is not in the Bill. He says that that is because it is in another Bill, currently going through Parliament, the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill. It is a good story because it
tries to tie in this structure, at a local level, through probation trusts and in future, if the Bill is successful, their many providers, with all the existing local processes: local area agreements, local strategic partnerships, community safety partnerships, and crime and disorder reduction partnerships. It is intended that all those should be partners of probation trusts. That will be a good and strong outcome, if it happens.
Clause 10, which deals with sharing information and to which an amendment has been tabled, will ensure that probation services and the new offender management service will participate in sharing information at local level. If the Minister can assure us that those measures are set solidly, we can be sure that the right accountability and consultation processes will be in place.
Mr. Sutcliffe: Mindful of the time, I give my hon. Friend that assurance. In Committee, he said that we ought to have those relationships, and they will be delivered, either through this Bill or through the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill.
Mr. Kidney: I was not fishing for a compliment, but it is nice of my hon. Friend to give it.
Mr. Heath: I, too, am mindful of the time and of the need to allow the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) the opportunity to speak to his amendments in the group.
We have come to the substance of the Bill and to one of the primary objections to it, which is that it is essentially a centralising measureone that takes both power and accountability upward rather than downward. Many of us have difficulty with the lack of local accountability and even local consultation. I heard what the Minister said in response to the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and we will examine the proposals closely, but I would prefer to see in this Bill explicit requirements for local accountability and local consultation. I take on board what the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) said in that respect and support his proposals.
The hon. Member for Stafford is correct: no one would point to the Prison Service as a good example of local accountability and concern for maintaining proper relations with the local community. That might be excused by the fact that the people with whom the Prison Service deals are in prison, not in the community. Sadly, that is not always the case, but generally prisoners are in prison, not roaming the streets. However, when dealing with the probation service in the context of community sentences, we are talking about people who are not only within the community, butone hopesserving sentences within the community that relate to their effect on the local community.
The key is confidence: confidence on the part of the local community that the service is doing a good job; confidence that the offender is being managed appropriately; confidence that the sentence reflects the concern that the community expresses about crimes that are committed locally; and confidence within members of the judiciaryespecially the lay magistracythat they can hand down a community sentence that will be properly administered and will have the desired
effect in terms of rehabilitation and the other parts of the equation that the probation service deals with.
It is hard to see how a small management board consisting, we are told by the Minister, of business people reflects the views of the community. It may reflect the views of local businesses and it may be very good at running the affairs of the service, but it does not reflect a genuine community interest. That is one of the reasons why I tabled amendment No. 18, which would ensure that every new trust had on its board a lay magistrate and a local councillor. I appreciate that those are two classes of person to whom the Government have a violent allergy, as they have demonstrated time and again, but there is no better representation of the local community than representation by those who are elected via the ballot box to play that role, and the lay magistracy continues to play an important part in our judicial system. In addition, both local councillors and lay magistrates are members of the existing probation boards, and it is hard to discern what difference has arisen since the last time the arrangements were changed to suggest that then it was right to include those individuals and now it is wrong.
I accept entirely the point made by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough that one councillor cannot truly be said to represent all strands of opinion within a community, especially one covering a large area; however, he can represent the interests expressed by the council on which he serves, which is representative of the community. In addition, it is entirely necessary for the probation service to have connections with many services that are in the hands of the local authority. That connection is therefore of value for utilitarian as well as for representative reasons.
What is most important is that there is someone who is accountable to the publicthe first point in the chain at which someone who is representative of the public can say that, as far as the community is concerned, the way in which offenders are being managed in the community will not do because they are not undertaking tasks or being managed in ways that are appropriate to that community. That is the representative voice that should be heard at that level.
I have already made the argument applicable to the presence of the magistracy on probation boards. It is important that magistrates have confidence in community sentencing. Their being represented on the board is one way to establish that confidence.
For all those reasons, I hope that the Minister will accept amendment No. 18. He has suggested that the Local Government Association supports the Bill because it meets the associations requirements. I have to say that his reading of the LGA briefing is very different from mine. I might have to declare an interest at this point, because I might be an honorary vice-president of the LGA. I was once, but I am not sure whether I still am. I was certainly a councillor of long standing. In its briefing, the LGA suggests an amendment in similar terms to the one that I tabled and says:
If the Bill is amended in this way, the LGA believes that it would address our concerns about local accountability.
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