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Mr. Gerrard: I would have more confidence about the contracts if I felt that there was any chance that I might be able to see the details, especially on the bid to operate the contract. In the private prison service, if
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questions are asked about the nature of bids, the answer is that details are not available because of commercial confidentiality. That is one of the big problems. As for the ability of those in the public sector to win such contracts, I think that they would do so, but there is no guarantee of that. When bids are made that will be commercially confidential, the whole process is much more difficult to understand.

Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): In relation to the scenario that my hon. Friend has just described, does he share my concern about the future integrity and quality of training?

Mr. Gerrard: That must be a concern. The issue was discussed at some length in Committee, and the Minister will no doubt have comments to make about that. If I recall correctly, one of the later Government amendments proposes some basic qualifications.

I shall address the reasons given for the changes—that we need more flexibility and voluntary sector involvement, that some probation boards are not delivering a good service, and that reoffending rates are not going down—but I have still never seen any analysis of exactly how and why the proposed changes would lead to improvements. A business case has never been made, despite the proposals having been around, in one form or another, for the best part of three years.

I am not convinced that the Bill is necessary in order to make some of the changes that we would all want. The Home Secretary is already telling probation boards what percentages of their expenditure he wants to be used for contracting out. Nobody disagrees about voluntary sector involvement. We know that there are some excellent examples of voluntary sector involvement. Some work is done almost exclusively through the voluntary sector.

2.45 pm

Mr. Sutcliffe: That point goes to the heart of what the Government are trying to achieve. My hon. Friend will be aware of some of the partnerships at the moment, and particularly of the one involving Rainer and Serco. Would he support their involvement in a partnership to provide services?

Mr. Gerrard: Rainer is an excellent example of an organisation that does good work. It has been saying this week, however, that it does not see the need for the restructuring under the Bill. I am not therefore sure that it is a perfect example for the Minister to cite.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I want to press my hon. Friend on this point, as it goes to the core of the issue. I do not share his view of what Rainer says about the Bill; it has some concerns about children being locked up, and we shall deal with that later. But does he agree—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I appreciate that the Minister is answering a question that has come from the Back Benches, but he must address his remarks to the Chair.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Does my hon. Friend support a partnership between Rainer and Serco to provide services?

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Mr. Gerrard: Some of us have said throughout the debate that we would like more partnership and co-operative working. Nobody has difficulties with that kind of approach. Rainer is saying that it strongly supports an expanded role for voluntary organisations. It talks, however, about the need for clear lines of accountability. It does have concerns about the proposals.

Mr. Denham: Perhaps my hon. Friend is going to cover this point, but the letter from Rainer that I have in front of me says that it has areas of concern but,

I must admit that I took that as general support for the principle behind the Bill. My hon. Friend seems to be arguing, however, that it opposes the Bill. There seems to be some contradiction between what it has written to me, and what it has written to him.

Mr. Gerrard: Rainer obviously has concerns about accountability and local partnerships, which it believes have been addressed. Voluntary organisations are coming at the Bill from both sides. All Members will have seen briefings from certain voluntary organisations that are fully in support of the proposals, but other voluntary organisations that have significant involvement in probation work are making it clear that they do not want change, because they do not want to be seen as agents of the state. They want their independence, and believe that they are in a stronger position when working in a co-operative fashion with the probation service than if they were seen as in charge of probation work with offenders.

On the question of some probation boards failing, in every service, some people provide good standards, and some do not. Generally, however, our response is not to tear up the whole structure. If a school fails, we do not start to tear apart the whole education system. If there are failings in local government, mechanisms and pressures are in place, such as the best value regime, to encourage councils that are not delivering on particular services to improve. We are told that reoffending rates are too high. If we look at what is happening in the criminal justice system as a whole, however, that is not surprising. Probation services do not supervise every offender; they are involved in the supervision of some offenders. Reoffending rates are lower among those who are supervised by the probation service than they are among those who are not.

Prisons are overcrowded to such an extent that educational and drugs rehabilitation work is suffering badly in many prisons, and people are being moved around from one prison to another in an effort to cope with all the pressures. They might be in the middle of a drugs rehabilitation course in their prison when they are moved to another prison where there is not such a course—or not one of the same nature. There are also huge numbers of people in prison who have serious mental health problems, and there is nowhere near enough capacity to deal with them either inside prison or outside when they come out. On top of that, it is now required that serious offenders—particularly sex offenders, as we were discussing earlier—are subject to much greater and more in-depth supervision.

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If reoffending is so important that it is the central issue, why has a target on that never been one of the targets set for the probation service? The Government have set a list of targets for the service, and it is meeting—or is very close to meeting—most of them, and it has been improving. Therefore, it is now being castigated for not achieving a target that has never been set. That does not make sense to me.

The service has been in its present form since only 2001, and for the last three years it has been under constant threat of reorganisation and privatisation, but it is, in fact, doing quite well—so why do we want to tear up the structure? Why are we proposing privatisation? I ask that question because, as I have said, the Bill allows for privatisation in any part of the service, not only in voluntary sector involvement.

I accept that the Minister has moved somewhat. New clause 11 is a shift; there is no question about that, and I welcome the fact that there has been that shift and that there is a recognition that at least one bit of probation service work should be fundamentally public sector. Unfortunately however, we have also got new clause 12. It allows new clause 11 to disappear by the passing of an order. That provides very little protection, because we all know how orders are dealt with and pass through the House, even when they address quite controversial subjects. I have in mind an order on a controversial subject that passed through the House in the past few weeks: the renewal of control orders under anti-terrorism legislation. Some people probably have not even noticed that that happened, even though the issue was extremely controversial when the primary legislation was dealt with. Even in such circumstances, little attention is usually paid to an order passing through the House two or three years later. Therefore, there are no guarantees whatever in what is being offered.

That is not to say that I do not trust the word of the Minister, because I do trust what he says: it is not his intention to move wholesale and to move quickly. I do not doubt his word for one moment. However, Ministers change. [Interruption.] As a colleague says from a sedentary position, that is perhaps especially the case in the Minister’s Department. Departments also change. We hear that there might be some changes in structure soon—although I do not know whether that will happen—and that what we are discussing might cease to be a Home Office responsibility altogether.

I must also say that some Ministers in this Government have form—if I can use that phrase in the current context. For example, when foundation hospital trusts were introduced, we received assurances that we would move cautiously, slowly and gradually—but we did not. I have heard the same assurances on a number of other matters, but we did not move cautiously, slowly and gradually on those either. Therefore, there is some form which must be taken into account. All that can be guaranteed in respect of what the Government are proposing is that the national service will become fragmented, that there will be myriad providers, and that we will lose local connections because commissioning will be at regional and national levels.

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I acknowledge that some things need to be done at national level. For example, electronic tagging is currently done nationally through contracts with a couple of private companies, and if the probation service has to deal with someone who has a tagging order it must make arrangements with the company concerned. However, many Members in various debates on the Bill have cited examples of good work, and what has struck me about every one of them is that it is co-operative work at local level involving the local probation board, or perhaps a local voluntary organisation or a local private company. That work is happening in a co-operative way and at local level.

Ian Lucas: I have a concern about my hon. Friend’s amendment No. 2. It says that the Secretary of State can make and carry out arrangements “solely with probation trusts”. It is my interpretation that under the amendment it would therefore not be possible to have such co-operative local arrangements between probation services and servers from the voluntary and private sectors. Therefore, all the cases of good practice that Members witness locally would have to stop if the amendment were agreed to.

Mr. Gerrard: I have had that point put to me before. I am unsure whether I accept that it is true, because I think that my amendment would prevent the Secretary of State from contracting directly with a voluntary sector organisation, but I do not think that it would do anything to stop probation trusts—if probation boards become trusts—continuing the current arrangements or deciding that in certain parts of their work they will contract or subcontract with a voluntary sector provider. It would only stop the Secretary of State doing contracting directly. I am sorry, because I am not a parliamentary draftsman, but if the amendment were otherwise acceptable I am sure that the Government could easily find a parliamentary draftsman to correct that problem. None of us wants to stop the sort of good local arrangements that currently exist.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): The basis of my hon. Friend’s amendment is a reflection of the spirit of the system that has been developed in Scotland. What would be formed is a partnership model under which various functions can be agreed at local level and devolved to the agencies that are best suited to carry out those functions. Therefore, it would not be a centralised approach such as that developed by the Government proposal.

Mr. Gerrard: That is certainly the intention. It is important that we keep that localism if we possibly can. If the power is with the probation trusts, that is where it should stay.

The core work of the probation service is the writing of court reports, and the key role in the supervision of offenders ought to remain with trained probation officers. If they believe that it is necessary to bring in a charity dealing with drugs rehabilitation work, for example, or specialist work in resettlement or education, then that is fine; that should be done, and the more people we can involve, the better. I say that because probation officers have more than enough to do without trying to move into things currently done by the voluntary sector.

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My suggestion is a compromise. It takes three of the six items listed in clause 1. It does not remove some of the other key elements of the Bill, such as the boards becoming trusts, or the Secretary of State having the power to deal with failing trusts and, if necessary, to merge them with another trust or to refuse to contract with them and to give their area’s work to another trust. What I am suggesting would not stop it being possible to apply those sorts of pressures to a trust that does not deliver.

I do not want it to be possible for private profit to be made from a key element of the criminal justice system. This Bill is, to some extent, a dog’s breakfast. The debate on it has highlighted the uncertainty about how it will work and who will make the decisions. Regional offender managers, who are talked about as the key commissioners, are not even mentioned in the Bill, so I am unsure what their role will be. I am afraid that we are in danger of constructing a system that will create more problems than it will solve.

Amendment (a) is an attempt to preserve some of the key elements of probation work in the place where they ought to be—with trained, qualified probation officers—while at the same time encouraging the wider involvement of the many local voluntary organisations which, as we know, do really good work and need to be so encouraged. As I said, I hope that we can have a separate vote on my amendment at the end of the debate on this group.

3 pm

Mr. Heath: It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), who will have our support if he presses amendment (a) to a vote. I agreed with almost every word that he said, but there were two things that I did not quite agree with. First, he said that the Bill as it stands will produce myriad providers, but the risk is quite the reverse. It will produce a consolidated, small number of companies and very large charitable organisations that will make such provision, in replacement of the current probation service. Many of the smaller, non-profit organisations that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (David Lepper) mentioned will be squeezed out by these central procurement arrangements.

Secondly, the hon. Member for Walthamstow was mistaken in his generosity to the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), whose construction of amendment (a) was incorrect. The hon. Member for Walthamstow was right to say that it would prevent the Secretary of State from effectively short-circuiting any local consideration in the provision of such services and ensure that such matters go through the probation trust. Such short-circuiting is surely what many of us who are concerned about the Bill’s centralising aspects want to prevent, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not in any way be put off his own amendment by a criticism that is not based on a proper reading of its consequences.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that some of the voluntary sector providers prayed in aid in support of this Bill are in fact quite hostile to it? Has he seen the response of Pete Crossley, of YMCA England’s prisons unit? He said:

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Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that it is important that we draw out the fact that elements of the voluntary sector are deeply concerned, as many of us are, about the direction of travel of this ill thought out proposal?

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I shall return to that issue in a moment, if I may. The idea that the voluntary sector as a whole is crying out for this Bill and believes that it is an unalloyed success in achieving its objectives is quite wrong. Many of the larger providers—not just the small providers that I and the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion referred to earlier—are also saying that this is not the direction of travel that they wish to follow.

A number of reasons have been adduced for the Bill’s core content, and we have accepted all along the line that there are some things that it is wise to do in the context of the probation service. We all support so-called “seamless provision”, and we all want the probation service to work with the Prison Service in providing better care and management of offenders for the protection of the public; nobody in this Chamber would want any other result. The difficulty that many of us have is understanding why Ministers are so clear in their minds that this Bill will make those things happen better now than they currently do.

I want to make it very clear that I have a great deal of respect for probation officers, probation services and the work that they have done. I used to work very closely with a probation service in Somerset that was one of the most innovative and excellent in the country. It has been hamstrung by constant changes to its structure, and it has been concerned about whether the funds match the Government’s and the public’s aspirations for the way in which it exercises its duties. However, in terms of their personal qualities and management, the probation services do a good job. Do they always get it right? No, of course they do not, but let someone show me a public service—or, indeed, a private service—that always gets things right. We should start from a basis of respect for the probation service.

Mr. Sutcliffe indicated assent.

Mr. Heath: The Minister nods, and I am grateful to him for doing so. Such respect was not immediately obvious when the Home Secretary gave his reflection of Johnny Cash at San Quentin when he visited Wormwood Scrubs. The main purport of his comments was to rubbish the probation service, which saddened me. If he felt that to be appropriate background music to the introduction of this Bill, he was much mistaken. This issue is of concern to many Members of this House, who might have wanted to look more positively at his proposals. However, he let the cat out of the bag: he showed that this is essentially a destructive, rather than constructive, measure.

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