Previous Section Index Home Page

28 Feb 2007 : Column 954

Conversely, if the Bill is not amended in that way, it will not address the association’s concerns about local accountability. That is why I commend my amendment to the House.

Mr. Llwyd: A consensus is developing on this part of the Bill. Running through the amendments is a thread to do with consultation, local accountability and similar concerns. I rise to speak to amendments Nos. 4 and 5, both of which stand in my name and those of my hon. Friends. Amendment No. 4 would ensure proper consultation with the Welsh Assembly Government on the provision of probation services in Wales, and amendment No. 5 deals with proper consultation with probation trusts and so on. My argument will therefore be similar to those that have already been made.

Under current legislation, the statutory duty to make arrangements for the provision of probation services rests exclusively with the local probation board. As others have said, under the Bill that duty is transferred to the Secretary of State. That, in itself, is a massive shift of both power and responsibility from local governance to Westminster. Although the Secretary of State has appointed regional offender managers and, in Wales, a director of offender management, those ROMs, as they are known, have no local accountability whatever. That is particularly unfortunate in the Welsh context in view of the role of the Welsh Assembly Government. I am sure that the Minister will address those points. Both amendments are probing, and if the Minister will respond in due course, I shall confine my speech to getting the points over.

Unfortunately, the Bill does not mention the Welsh Assembly Government, even though key services with which existing probation boards and, in due course, the new boards work very closely are delivered through the Welsh Assembly. Lifelong learning, health and housing have all been devolved fully to the Welsh Assembly. My point is that close co-operation between the commissioners, the providers of probation services and the Welsh Assembly Government is essential. That is why the Secretary of State should be required to undertake regular and meaningful consultation with the Assembly Government.

The Bill does not take into account the different circumstances that pertain to Wales, and there is a great deal of concern about how the implementation of the Bill will impact on the provision of probation services in Wales. Some of those concerns stem from a National Offender Management Service document published in August 2006 on working together to reduce re-offending, which failed to mention the Welsh Assembly or to recognise the different circumstances pertaining to Wales. Paragraph 1.14 of that document states that three strong alliances—a corporate alliance, a civic society alliance, and a faith and voluntary sector alliance—are being incorporated to promote and encourage greater involvement on the part of employers, local authorities, and voluntary and faith organisations in reducing reoffending.

2 pm

Will there be a Welsh dimension, and indeed a local dimension, to those alliances? If not, how will knowledge of local and regional requirements and
28 Feb 2007 : Column 955
differences be imparted? In the case of the voluntary sector, will the Wales Council for Voluntary Action and county voluntary organisations such as Mantell Gwynedd have a role to play?

On page 17 of the NOMS document, there is a reference to a NOMS national provider network. Will that have a Welsh dimension? Could it result in contracts for services in North Wales being given to bodies from England and other parts of the UK? What safeguards will there be in relation to the provision of Welsh language services? The ability to provide services in the Welsh language is of the utmost importance in parts of Wales, particularly in some areas in Gwynedd where more than 80 per cent. of the population are Welsh speakers. Will all the organisations given contracts in Wales be required to have a Welsh language policy, and will they have to show the same commitment to the language, and to the provision of services in the preferred language of the user, as the relevant area probation board currently does?

The purpose of the Bill is to split the responsibility for commissioning and providing probation services, and to introduce contestability, or whatever one calls it. Possibly, it is privatisation by the back door, but I will not go into that now. The emphasis on competition seems to be in direct conflict with the approach taken by the Welsh Assembly Government and other public bodies in Wales towards the provision of public services. In fact, the Welsh Assembly Government’s document, “Making the Connections: Delivering Better Services for Wales”, referred to public services in Wales as being based on co-operation and collaboration, rather than on competition. The north Wales probation board has an excellent record on developing and maintaining partnerships with local bodies to provide services to offenders. It should be allowed—indeed, encouraged—to develop that work further without any interference by Government.

Public bodies in Wales, including probation boards, are being judged and audited on the basis of the progress that they are making in implementing the “Making the Connections” agenda. The enactment of the Bill would make it difficult, if not impossible, for probation services in Wales to be judged on that basis. Those are pretty important points, and if the Minister cannot address them today, I respectfully ask him to respond in writing, as the Welsh Assembly Government and many people throughout Wales are concerned about the impact of the Bill.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I once again thank hon. Members for their contributions; they have been consistent in their views, both in Committee and on Report. I have to say to the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) that I have never accepted that the Bill is top-down. Indeed, it is the other way round, and we put safeguards in place to make sure that that is so, as was outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney). I am grateful for his contribution, in which he set out what we are trying to achieve. This has been a constructive debate, and I have listened carefully to the points made today and in the past, and in discussions with a number of colleagues and organisations. I recognise and share the desire of the House to ensure proper consultation, representation and planning under the new arrangements.

28 Feb 2007 : Column 956

Let me begin by referring to consultation, to which we are fully committed. As the hon. and learned Member for Harborough said, clause 2 already places a requirement on the Secretary of State to consult at least once a year such persons as he thinks fit about the provision that should be made for probation purposes in the following year. The consultation will take place through the nine regional commissioners in England, and through the director of offender management in Wales. That will be one of the key ways in which commissioners engage with stakeholders and identify the needs that must be met. The people consulted will include sentencers, providers of probation services, providers of custodial services, other criminal justice agencies, local authorities, learning and skills councils, and bodies involved in the provision of services that contribute to the reduction of reoffending.

In Wales, we are fully committed to working closely with the Welsh Assembly Government. The reducing reoffending strategy for Wales was jointly developed by the National Offender Management Service in Wales and the Welsh Assembly Government, along with other organisations. The current NOMS commissioning plan for Wales will continue to be prepared in consultation with the Welsh Assembly Government as part of the overall plans to reduce reoffending and ensure public protection. The reducing reoffending action plan was produced jointly by NOMS Wales and the Welsh Assembly Government’s reducing reoffending strategy board for Wales. The board is important, because it involves other agencies. It is chaired jointly by the director of offender management in Wales and the Welsh Assembly Government, so there is a relationship there, and I hope that it will strengthen.

I am fully aware of the need to involve the Welsh Assembly Government; the question is whether we need to specify that in the Bill. In Committee, we debated whether consultees should be specified in the Bill, and if they were, which organisations they should be. In Committee, there was no real consensus on that point. In general, it seems that a list would not be an especially helpful way forward, given that we want to include a range of interests, not simply across different agencies and sectors, but at all levels, from the local to, where appropriate, the national.

The Welsh Assembly Government, as the body responsible for many of the services with which probation trusts need to interact, occupy a unique position. On reflection, I agree that it may make sense to reflect that in the Bill, and I am happy to consider how we might best achieve that. With that assurance, I hope that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) will not press his amendment, because I feel that we can come back to him on his point.

I am less convinced by amendments Nos. 5 and 9. The aims of those two amendments are appropriately achieved by the duty in clause 2 to consult, which, as I said, we wish to exercise widely and openly. I therefore do not accept the amendments as they stand, but I am happy to consider matters further and bring forward any further improvements that are necessary.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): How far can my hon. Friend assure me that if an agreement is drawn up between all the representative agencies and
28 Feb 2007 : Column 957
organisations in my county, that local area agreement would be approved by the regional commissioner? Is it my hon. Friend’s expectation that in most circumstances the plans and ideas drawn up by local organisations would be accepted as part of the regional commissioning plans?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I will touch on her point shortly, so I hope that she will bear with me. New clause 2 proposes that probation trusts provide an annual plan. I have already explained our commitment to consultation, and we are similarly committed to transparency in the operation of the new arrangements. We already have arrangements in place whereby the commissioner publishes a regional commissioning plan, which sets out the basis on which he will commission services for the year. Currently, that is an administrative arrangement, but I would be happy to put it on a statutory basis, and we will consider how best to do that. I am also happy to extend the requirement to individual providers, along the lines proposed. I am therefore happy to accept the new clause in principle, subject to any minor technical drafting improvements that might be necessary.

That brings me to the amendment on magistrates and councillors—an issue that we discussed at length in Committee. I explained then our desire to allow flexibility in the membership of trusts to suit local circumstances. I fully accept that we need to make sure that local circumstances are considered. We want to work closely with trust chairs to determine the skills that each trust needs to suit its local circumstances and to enable the selection of the best people for the job. The existing legislation, the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000, is excessively prescriptive and imposes a top-down, one-size-fits-all solution that we do not wish to carry forward into the new world.

Mr. Heath: The Minister did not say that at the time.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I expect that the trust will need magistrates and councillors’ skills and expertise, so we are not saying that we do not want magistrates and councillors. Trust members will continue to be drawn largely from the local area. The hon. Gentleman will find, therefore, that the Government listened to what was said. I accept that we need to revisit the position on councillors in the light of concerns about local accountability and engagement, and I have had helpful discussions with the Local Government Association, which said that it would be concerned if we were not prepared to look at the issue in greater detail. The LGA did not mention magistrates, as it was concerned purely about the position of councillors. I do not wish to be prescriptive, but I am prepared to reconsider the representation of local government councillors.

Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): Without wishing to be too prescriptive, would it be appropriate for the leader of the council or a cabinet member, rather than a back-bench councillor, to hold such a position to ensure that they can bring their weight to bear on the role?

28 Feb 2007 : Column 958

Mr. Sutcliffe: It is worth considering that point. In my constituency, West Yorkshire probation service covers an area served by five local authorities, so the issue would be how to determine which person was most representative. We shall have further discussions on local accountability, and I am sure that the matter will be considered then.

We will include in the Bill a reference to the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which is proceeding through the House, to make it clear, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford suggested, that the providers of probation services are under a duty to co-operate with local area agreements and have regard to targets that are set. Local area agreements tie in with the local framework and the reducing reoffending partnership boards. That is not a top-down approach, as we have the ability to consult at national, regional and local levels. On the issue of the Welsh language, I am afraid that I will have to write to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy with the details.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the Minister for his positive approach to my amendment, and we look forward to amendments being tabled at a later stage.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I hope that the Opposition will not press their amendments in the light of what I have said about accepting them in principle and returning to the issue at a later stage.

Mr. Garnier: What the Minister said was interesting. From time to time, the Government need the spur of a Division to keep them to their word, and it is only for reasons of time that I shall not seek the opinion of the House this afternoon. I accept his word that he does not want a top-down system, but the facts on the ground are different. The winter supplementary estimates for 2006-07 for the Home Office and for NOMS are revealing compared with those for 2004-05. The Government will spend £60 million more on NOMS headquarters than on the entire probation service for 2006-07; £899 million will be spent on those headquarters and only £832 million on the probation service. Since March 2005, the NOMS budget has increased by 556 per cent., partly because of the transfers from the probation service and the Prison Service budgets to NOMS for that two-year period. The probation service headquarters budget, however, has fallen by £160 million to £40 million in that period.

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Mr. Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [this day].

Question negatived.

New Clause 11

Restriction on certain arrangements under section 3(2)

‘(1) Arrangements under section 3(2) relating to restricted probation provision may only be made with a probation trust or other public body.

(2) In this section “restricted probation provision” means probation provision which—

(a) is made for a purpose mentioned in section 2(1)(a) or (b); and

28 Feb 2007 : Column 959

(b) relates to the giving of assistance to any court in determining the appropriate sentence to pass, or making any other decision, in respect of a person charged with or convicted of an offence.’.— [Mr. Sutcliffe.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment (a) to the proposed new clause, in line 2, leave out from ‘trust’ to end of line 8 and insert—

‘(2) In this section “restricted probation provision” means probation provision which—

(a) is made for one of the probation purposes set out in section 1(1)(a), (c) and (f);

(b) is for the provision of assistance to the Parole Board;

(c) is for the management of approved premises within the meaning of section 9.’.

Government new clause 12— Power to repeal section (Restriction on certain arrangements under section 3(2)).

New clause 3— Conflict of interests—

‘No private provider of probation services may, without giving notice in writing to the relevant sentencing court of any relevant financial or commercial interest, recommend a sentence in which it has a commercial or financial interest.’.

Amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 18, at end insert—

‘(1A) In this Part, “a core probation purpose” means the purpose of providing for—

(a) the probation purposes set out in subsections 1(a), (c) and (f);

(b) the provision of assistance to the Parole Board;

(c) the management of approved premises within the meaning of section 9.’.

Amendment No. 2, in page 2, line 44, at end insert—

‘(2A) The Secretary of State shall discharge his function under subsection (1) in relation to any core probation purpose by making and carrying out arrangements under section 3 solely with probation trusts established under section 4.’.

Government amendment No. 24.

Mr. Sutcliffe: The new clauses and amendments give rise to some key issues. The aim of the Bill is to improve the delivery of services to reduce reoffending and better protect the public. It offers a pragmatic approach to tackling the diverse needs of offenders, which require a diverse response. I have frequently emphasised, as has my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, my appreciation of probation staff and the difficult and dangerous work that they do on our behalf. I have frequently paid tribute, too, to the improvements in performance that the probation service has achieved in recent years.

The current arrangements have delivered a great deal, but we need to deliver more. To do so, we must free the public sector from the burden of being responsible for all the probation services in 42 individual areas. We must give the public sector freedom to focus on its strengths, while opening the door more widely to providers in the voluntary, charitable and private sectors so that they can show what they can do. We must be able to commission services, not on the basis of ideology, but on the basis
28 Feb 2007 : Column 960
of what works in particular circumstances and who is best placed to deliver it. If a voluntary sector organisation has particular expertise in an area of service delivery, we should be able to make full use of it. If it makes sense to commission a specialised service across a region, rather than in small area-based packages, we should be able to do so. We should be able, too, to commission services that span custody and the community to improve continuity in the provision of services across different parts of an individual sentence.

Next Section Index Home Page