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2.15 pm

We want to increase the involvement of the charitable, voluntary and private sectors, especially in interventions—for example, in the provision of programmes on offending behaviour, drug treatment and so on. Many voluntary sector organisations are already doing good work in those fields and we want to build on that. We want them to work alongside the public sector to develop expertise and strengthen partnership working so that a more diverse range of provision is available in due course. I know that many Members are concerned about what that means for the public sector. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I have made clear on numerous occasions, the public sector will continue to play a key role in those arrangements and we intend to proceed cautiously.

Most services will be commissioned from lead providers at area level, which will sub-contract to a range of other providers. In most cases, those lead providers will be part of the public sector probation trust, and we have always said that the bulk of core offender management work such as writing reports for courts and supervising individual cases will remain for the next few years in the public sector, which has inherited expertise in the field. We have consistently made it clear, too, that the Bill will not lead to a “dumbing down” in standards. Whether work is carried out by a trust or a non-public sector provider, it will still be delivered by appropriately qualified, professional probation staff. I accept, however, that the House still has concerns about the pace and scale of change, and about what might happen in future.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): I have a briefing from the Probation Boards Association, which refers to the regulatory impact assessment, which says that data sharing is essential. The association, however, says:

Will my friend address that point, and explain whether there will be a seamless transfer of information between private sector providers and probation services?

Mr. Sutcliffe: If my hon. Friend has read the Committee proceedings, he will know that the issue was raised then. We intend to make sure that transparency and data sharing continue. There should be no excuse for failing to maintain those relationships, and he will know that the private sector is involved in many aspects of that work—I will return to those issues later. He has read the briefing from the Probation Boards
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Association, and I hope that he has read, too, the briefings from all the organisations that have contacted the House, to learn where they stand on the issue.

I was explaining that the public sector has a key role to play in the arrangements, and I was discussing core offender management work such as the writing of reports for courts and the supervision of individual cases. I repeat that that work will remain for the next few years in the public sector, which has inherited expertise in the field. We will not dumb down standards, and the work must be carried out in association with qualified probation staff. I accept the House’s concerns about the pace and scale of change, and I have been considering, as has my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, how we might best respond to those concerns.

We have concluded that it is right to give statutory force to our assurances to show the House and external stakeholders that we are serious about what we say. I have looked carefully at the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and have held helpful discussions with him, for which I thank him. We tried to achieve a consensus on our aims in respect of offender management. I recognise his commitment to the probation service and his desire to secure the future of the public sector.

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): My hon. Friend just said rather quickly, in passing, that he was mindful of concern about the pace of change. One of the issues, which is not about the Bill but about the implementation, is that if the Government move too quickly in opening up contestability, the smaller voluntary organisations, which are sometimes the most creative and innovative, may be pushed out of the way by other organisations simply because they have the management capacity to put together bigger proposals. Can my hon. Friend say a little more about how, in practice, the Government will deal with the pace of change, and what assurance could be given to the House over time that things were not moving faster than innovation can take place at local level?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who chairs the Home Affairs Committee, for the work that he does on these matters. The point that he raises about small individualised local voluntary sector schemes is important. I referred to that in Committee. We want to protect such schemes and we will introduce arrangements that protect their specialist needs. Those are the bodies that we want to support because they provide the means to reduce reoffending by their interventions.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): No sensible person is against the charitable sector being involved in the provision of these services, but we have trouble understanding why it requires the Bill in order to make that possible. Surely some charities are involved already, and there must be other ways that do not involve a sledgehammer to enable the Government to encourage more to get involved.

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Mr. Sutcliffe: The Bill is necessary to change the existing culture. It is important that we tackle reoffending. We all agree that reoffending rates, on whichever figures we believe, are too high, despite the excellent work of the probation service. The probation boards currently have a monopoly on the services that are provided. My hon. Friend will have received many representations from voluntary organisations to the House arguing that they could do more. We believe that the formation of the probation trusts will provide a wider answer and enable us to tackle reoffending as a community. Too often, that has been left to the criminal justice system and the associated bodies.

Before they commit an offence and afterwards, offenders are members of our community. In particular areas—resettlement is one that comes to mind—there is an opportunity for other organisations, whether voluntary, charitable or private sector, to come up with resettlement plans. That is what we want to achieve.

David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Mr. Sutcliffe: I anticipate my hon. Friend asking me to give way. I will give way and then get back to the main body of my speech. I want to hear what others have to say.

David Lepper: I take my hon. Friend’s point. In my area, the Sussex probation area, the probation service works with 19 different voluntary and statutory providers on managing offenders. Those organisations range from the YMCA to Working Links to locally based organisations. If there is a problem with probation boards in other parts of the country, would the Government not be better advised to deal with those particular problems, rather than with the service as a whole, as the Bill does?

Mr. Sutcliffe: The simple answer is no. If that work is being carried out successfully by that probation board, it will continue. Nothing that we propose in the Bill will destroy those links. One would expect them to be strengthened by local area agreements and by the involvement of local partners. They would be the priority of the various criminal boards and would be part of the partnership between regional reoffending boards.

What we are offering is enhancement. It comes back to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) said about the pace of change. There is no big bang solution. There will not be 42 new probation trusts by 2008. We want to implement the measures over time and by agreement to achieve what we all say we believe in—end-to-end offender management, building on the good work that is being done.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Sutcliffe: I shall make progress, as I am mindful of the time. I want to explain why we disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, whose commitment to the probation service I recognise. However, his amendment goes too far. His definition of core services is so wide that it would require virtually
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all probation services to be commissioned through the public sector. There would be no scope for services to be commissioned directly from a charitable, voluntary or private sector provider, regardless of the skills or expertise that that provider had to offer.

I do not believe that to be the right way forward. It would undermine the key objectives of the Bill. Nevertheless, I accept the need to do something. I have been particularly struck by the concerns that have been expressed both in the House and outside about the support that the probation service gives to courts, especially in the preparation of reports. This is a crucial and sensitive area of work which depends on trust between the court and the report writer. It requires a high level of expertise on the part of staff in assessing risk, the circumstances of the offence and appropriate disposals. It can be key to the success or otherwise of what follows in reducing reoffending and protecting the public.

Concerns have also been expressed about conflicts of interest, and the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) will no doubt wish to say something about that later. I understand some of these concerns and, though I do not rule out for all time the possibility of some of that work being done in the voluntary, charitable or private sectors, it will in practice rest with the public sector for some time to come. It is the public sector, with its century of experience, which is best placed to deliver this work and it will be some time before the appropriate expertise has developed elsewhere.

For that reason, I propose an amendment that would require the Secretary of State to contract only with the public sector for the work that the probation service does in relation to courts. The amendment defines this area of service provision widely: it includes not only pre-sentence reports, but advice on bail and remand decisions, breaches and general assistance to courts. The provision could be repealed only by an order subject to affirmative resolution, so if at some future point the Government were to decide that the time was right to open up this area of work to non-public sector providers, they would have to make the case to Parliament, which would have the final say.

The amendment shows how we have been listening and goes a long way to meeting the concerns that have been expressed. I hope that in their contributions my hon. Friends will recognise that we have moved forward from where we were and listened to some of the concerns relating to court reports and the management of offenders. We want to approach the matter in the context of reducing reoffending. It is not an attack on the probation service. We understand that the National Association of Probation Officers, the trade union involved, wants to protect all the responsibilities of its members.

Mr. Heath: Will the Minister explain to me in simple terms why both new clause 11 and new clause 12 have been tabled? Why is it necessary to insert in the Bill a mechanism for repeal by order, if it is the Government’s intention to proceed in good faith with the provisions of new clause 11? We do not have automatic systems for repeal by order in any other Bill. Why is it necessary in this case?

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Mr. Sutcliffe: That is a response to the requests for us to listen to definitions of core probation functions. There is no intention to jeopardise public protection. We believe that through the measures we can proceed very cautiously and deliberately, with the support of local areas through local area agreements and all the accountability regimes that are in place, and that if it is felt by local areas that there needs to be a move on court reports, we cannot do that without coming back to the House. We feel that that is a fair compromise that gives satisfaction in the area that we were told is the key element of probation work—court reports.

I hope that hon. Friends and colleagues on both sides of the House will be able to accept what the Government propose.

2.30 pm

Mr. Garnier: As before, I will endeavour to be brief because amendments other than mine may command greater public attention. None the less, I should like to comment on the Government’s new clauses and on our new clause 3.

New clause 3 is wholly uncontroversial and nothing other than common sense. I declare an interest as a Crown Court recorder who has received pre-sentence reports from the probation service and will presumably, if I continue to sit, receive them from commercial providers, assuming that they are not placed in a special category and reserved to the probation service. It is unarguable that no recommendation to a court for a sentence should carry with it a hidden interest. Anyone who is recommending to a court a sentence of, say, community punishment should not be able to hide his or her firm’s interest in that sentence. I hope that with those few words new clause 3 can be accepted.

On new clauses 11 and 12, I do not want to enter into the arguments for and against the outsourcing of probation services beyond the probation service. I wish to place on record, as I have by tabling an early-day motion, my admiration for the work of the probation service and for those who work within it as officers and staff. This is their 100th anniversary year, and I do not think that anybody would wish to detract from or diminish the work that they have done in very difficult circumstances. After all, they deal day after day with people who are extremely difficult to work with, such as drug addicts, violent offenders and sex offenders—broadly, people who do not feel that they have a place in society and see no particular reason to comply with the norms of social behaviour. None the less, the public service ethos cannot be monopolised by the probation service. Plenty of people outside it are willing and able to do that work. However, they should be properly regulated as regards their qualifications and properly monitored as regards their performance, and there should be no diminution in quality or in the provision of a 24 hours-a-day, 365 days-a-year service.

As the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) said, several small charitable bodies will not have the financial or secretarial weight to compete with some of the bigger organisations. It would be a pity, to say the least, if they were swept away by the bulldozers of big organisations which are equally well motivated but much better able to trawl up some of the easier contracts. I trust that those organisations will
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not simply pick out the easy ones and leave a truncated and underfunded probation service to carry on doing the most difficult work.

Earlier, I mentioned some figures about NOMS headquarters that demonstrate that the Government seem to be wedded to a centralised bureaucracy that condescends to deliver services from the centre to the regions, and through the regions to localities. I accept that they want probation services to be pushed out beyond the state sector, but they are making matters extremely difficult by spending much more money—£60 million—on the bureaucracy in the middle than the probation service can currently spend on the front line. If that is their attitude now, what will it be like when they come to distribute the contracts and to the third and not-for-profit sectors?

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) picked on an issue that I was going to pick on myself—namely, that in new clause 11 the Government give, but in new clause 12 they take away. It is difficult to understand a Government who say that they want to push these services out beyond the state sector but then keep up their sleeve a legislative provision that allows them to amend, repeal or make law in this regard. That makes their arguments much more difficult to accept.

The Government need to be clearer about what they intend to do as regards subcontractors. We all understand that a service may be given to a big company or a big charity, but the Bill provides that work can be subcontracted to second, third and fourth parties. The Government need to clarify to the House and to their own supporters what they mean by the provision in clause 3 whereby such work may be subcontracted. New clause 11 mentions restricted probation services. We are owed a clearer explanation of where the restriction stops and how the work should be carried out.

A few moments ago, the Minister said, rather disarmingly, that the Bill is designed to change the culture. I have heard of Bills doing all sorts of things, but I did not think that changing cultures was what we were about today. I am a little puzzled. The Minister seems to be convinced in his own head, if nobody else is, that the Bill is essential in order to move probation services out to the third, not-for-profit and commercial sectors. However, given that the Government have already done things with the probation service that did not require legislation—this is the third reorganisation of the probation service since they came to power—his argument about the need for this piece of legislation rather falls through.

On 26 February, the Home Secretary complained in The Daily Telegraph that only 3 per cent. of probation revenue goes to voluntary bodies. However, the figure was more than twice that until the Home Office under this Government decided that it was not money well spent. Government top-slicing of probation budgets further skews the picture. Certain services are no longer provided by the probation service. For example, drugs rehabilitation money now goes through drug action teams, offender accommodation money is routed
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through schemes called “supporting people”, and offender learning money goes through the Learning and Skills Council.

All those funds, which used to be part of the core probation service budget when the target for outsourcing was 7 per cent., are now outsourced. The Home Secretary can truthfully say that the figure is only 3 per cent., but that is only because he made it so. It is 3 per cent. because the Government pushed those elements into other quangos and agencies. The Home Secretary is setting up an Aunt Sally when he complains, in that charming way that he has, that the probation service restricts itself to 3 per cent. of revenue going outside. It does not—the Government make it so. If they can change their mind on the move from 7 per cent. to 3 per cent. without legislation, they do not need this Bill in order to move from 3 per cent. to 10 per cent., 50 per cent. or even 100 per cent. In that regard, the Government’s argument for the Bill—forgetting the arguments that the Minister has with the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard)—is deeply flawed.

I shall finish my speech now, as many Members will wish to speak on other new clauses and amendments. I shall, however, watch, wait and listen.

Mr. Gerrard: I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak in this debate. I had anticipated that I would speak to amendment No. 1, which is in my name. Because of technical issues of which you will be aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it became necessary to substitute for that amendment (a) to Government new clause 11, which is effectively the same. At the end of the debate, I hope that you will feel able to allow a separate vote on amendment (a) as well as a Division, if it is called, on new clause 11.

The new clause and amendments address some of the core issues of the Bill. I appreciate all that the Minister has said about not wishing to move too fast in a particular direction. The fact is, however, that the Bill allows for all probation functions to be opened up to competition from the private sector as well as the voluntary sector. I am not suggesting that the Minister’s comments were not made in good faith, but that is what the Bill allows. Who knows which private companies might be involved? We can make guesses—they would be guesses, because no private company is currently doing core probation work—that certain providers of private prisons would be involved, and that such companies would no doubt poach staff from the probation service; otherwise, they would not be able to find anybody with experience of the work. We have seen that happen in other fields.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): Does not my hon. Friend accept that the quality of the contracts and tendering documents written will determine what service is provided? Does he have so little faith in the existing services that he believes that they would not win a substantial amount of the work that is, to coin a phrase, market-tested in that way?

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