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Much has been said at the Dispatch Box about how the Bill will liberate the probation service and enable it to use properly the skills available in the voluntary sector, but I have yet to see any evidence that
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insuperable barriers exist to doing that at the moment. The Minister talks about a Bill to change the culture—a point that was taken up by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier). Bills do not change culture. Management can change culture. Direction can change culture. The day-to-day operations within the service can change culture, but one cannot change it through legislation. I fear that that is a wholly mistaken view on the Minister’s part.

Mr. Sutcliffe: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heath: The Minister is going to correct me—I hope.

Mr. Sutcliffe: The hon. Gentleman is just plain wrong. He said that the existing system has its weaknesses and needs to be supported. I am saying that the change in culture that we want is for cutting reoffending rates and helping offenders to be the responsibility of the whole community. Throughout our consideration of the Bill, our aim has been to widen the whole community’s access to the offender. That is why the Bill is important, because that is how the culture and the management will be changed.

Mr. Heath: If that is the Minister’s intention, he is going a very funny way about it. He conceded earlier that there might be a role for local communities through local authorities. However, he is saying that boards will be established made up of business people, and they will talk to other business people about what provisions they might make under a contract, and that they will set contracts that communities are not party to—the point made by the hon. Member for Walthamstow—in order to establish in those communities a culture of support for the rehabilitation and control of offenders. I am sorry, but that equation makes no sense to me at all.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am sorry that I was not present earlier. My main worry is accountability. Like the hon. Gentleman, I represent a county area. We have a county police force—it was subject to reorganisation, however—and county courts, which are also being reorganised. It is not at all clear whether the form that the probation service will take—whatever that might be—will in any way fit with the Court Service and the wider probation services. In other words, there will be no accountability, which is an additional reason why the culture will be wrong.

Mr. Heath: I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. My worry is that this Government’s general movement is toward allowing the criminal justice system to retreat from local accountability. We had it with the proposals for regional police forces and for the court system. All the time, the leverage that the local community has on the criminal justice system is becoming more and more remote. It is becoming a distant service, administered from Whitehall, and that is of great concern. The criminal justice system needs more local accountability and understanding of how to deal effectively with crime and the punishment of
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offenders in the community. All the factors that the Government bring into play tend to have the reverse effect.

I am not trying to be clever with the Minister, but he talked about the public sector being given freedom from being responsible. I do not want the public sector to be given freedom from being responsible. I want the public sector to be responsible, but that does not mean that it has to provide every single service itself. The prospect that remote organisations, and I include the Secretary of State in that, should be given the power to offload key responsibilities for the delivery of the criminal justice system in our communities to businesses or nationally organised non-profit-making companies, is an entirely regressive step. That is why it is important that the Bill is fundamentally amended.

We voted against the Bill on Second Reading. Unless there is serious movement now, we will vote against it on Third Reading. The Government have a last opportunity to accept the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Walthamstow, but I am given no confidence by the amendments that they have already tabled. As the hon. Gentleman says, they have tabled a partial concession, but they do not have confidence in it. They are not prepared to say that they are persuaded by the arguments put by Labour Members and others, have rethought the issue and are now putting forward a new model. Instead, the Government give with one hand and take back with the other. They propose a unique system under which a provision would be put into the Bill, but the very next clause is the capacity to repeal it. However, that repeal would not be by this House in primary legislation, but by Order in Council. That is not an illustration of good faith or of a Government who have listened and changed their mind. It suggests that the Government think that the application of a bit of sticking plaster will get them through today and see the Bill on to the statute book.

I have fundamental objections to key parts of the criminal justice system being privatised and I make no pretence otherwise. I am happy for the private sector to be involved in peripheral activities where it can add value to the operation, but dealing with offenders involves core issues that should be performed by operatives of the state in the form of the probation service. That is why I will support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Walthamstow.

If I were concerned about a paedophile on the streets of my constituency, I would want a properly trained probation officer dealing with him, not an accountant or a business man. I do not want business people producing contracts for other business people to fill: I want people who know the business of criminal justice. I want the reassurance of having properly trained officers who know about the probation service doing that job on the streets of Somerset. I suspect that many other hon. Members feel the same way and will illustrate that in the way that they vote this evening.

Mr. Mullin: I support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard). I have no ideological objection to the involvement of the private sector in the criminal justice system if I can see a case for it. Still less have I any objection to the involvement of the charitable sector and I welcome the fact that it is already widely involved
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and could be more so if we so choose. I was one of those who persuaded the then shadow Home Secretary—he is now Leader of the House—of the desirability of introducing the private sector into the Prison Service. I could not see any other way of cracking the malign influence of the Prison Officers Association on the management of our prison system.

3.15 pm

In the case of the probation service, however, I am not convinced that there is a problem that needs fixing, at least not with the sledgehammer envisaged in this Bill. I do not know where the proposal started, as the turnover of Ministers in the Home Office means that none of the present ones are to blame for any mistakes in the Bill. I suspect that it has more to do with the Government’s habit, in many areas of public service, of throwing all the pieces into the air every so often and seeing where they land.

Martin Salter: My hon. Friend understates the case. If the press reports are true, not only do Ministers change, but the responsibility for prisons and the probation service is to move from the Home Office to the Department for Constitutional Affairs. It is one of life’s ironies that the last great public Department will, allegedly, be responsible for reforming a service for which it will no longer be responsible.

Mr. Mullin: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that piece of information, of which I was not aware. I look forward to debating that proposal in due course.

As far as probation is concerned, I cannot see a problem that needs fixing. In my area in Northumberland, the probation service provides a good service and I am not aware of any serious concerns about the quality of the service provided. I am aware that in some parts of the country—a minority of areas—there are some concerns about the way in which the probation service is managed, but there are other ways to deal with those concerns, such as a shake-up of the probation board or a serious conversation with the management. I do not see why the entire service should be turned inside out to deal with problems that exist in only one or two areas.

On the issue of the reoffending rate, my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow made the point that it was not among the targets that had been set. It is only a very recent argument. We can all think of many reasons—not least the chronic overcrowding in our prisons and the difficulties in providing education and rehabilitation services—why the rate remains stubbornly high.

There may be a case for shaking up the probation service in those few areas with a problem, but there is no general problem that needs fixing. As other hon. Members have remarked, it is only three years since the last reorganisation in the probation service and there has to be a limit. I shall support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend this evening.

Mr. Denham: As other hon. Members have done, I wish to make it clear that even those of us who believe that there is a case for change in the organisation of the structures of probation do not mean that as criticism of the professional probation officers who work in the
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service. They do not choose those structures, and they work hard and professionally in the vast majority of instances. I want to make that point clear.

It is a matter of great regret to me that the Government resisted the request from the Home Affairs Committee to give the Bill pre-legislative scrutiny. Such scrutiny assists the House in its work and some of the issues on which the Government have recently made concessions—such as the welcome concession on the issue of court report—could have been highlighted, resolved and solved before the Bill was formally introduced into the House, had it been subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. The very important commitment that my hon. Friend the Minister made earlier this afternoon on requiring regional offender managers to take full account of local area agreements—a significant change in the structure of the Bill in terms of getting probation services to work with local authorities and other agencies, including the health service and mental health services—could have been addressed at an earlier stage. I believe that the Government would be facing less difficulty today if proper draft scrutiny of the Bill had taken place. I say that about nearly every Home Office Bill, because the Government almost always refuse draft scrutiny. I live in hope that, one day, we will handle these matters a little better.

On the substance of the Bill, although some problems exist, I believe that we should start moving in the direction that it sets out. We should not reject it, which is what I understand the Opposition parties, and possibly some of my colleagues, have decided to do this afternoon. Rejecting the Bill would send out entirely the wrong signal, as would accepting the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard). It would suggest that we are resistant to change in the provision of some of our probation services.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) said, in effect, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I admire the work that he has done on these matters, but I remind the House of the report from the Home Affairs Committee on prison regimes and their role in reducing reoffending. Like many earlier reports, it highlights the catastrophic breakdown in the process by which prisoners make the transition from prison to the community. That need not happen: there are no reasons why current partnership arrangements should not have delivered a more seamless service, but the reality is that very few offenders get a managed transition that deals seamlessly with their needs in terms of housing, education and employment, as well as possibly providing marital or relationship counselling for those who want to get back with their partners. Meeting offenders’ needs in those ways is the key to reducing reoffending.

On paper, there is no barrier preventing the existence of such a service. However, the fact that it does not exist should tell us that we ought to be prepared to countenance some radical change.

Patrick Hall: I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be aware that section 10 of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 provides that the Secretary of State can intervene when a probation board is
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underperforming. If some of the matters that he has just cited are causing problems, would not it be worth trying that route first?

Mr. Denham: It is certainly arguable that it would have been better if, over the past four or five years, that power had been tested—to destruction, as it were—to see how adequate it is. However, every Member of this House must make a judgment about the current provisions in respect of returning offenders to our communities, a problem with which we are all familiar. Do we feel that the service generally provides ex-offenders almost everywhere with what they need, and that the failure in some areas needs to be addressed by a power of intervention by the Secretary of State? Or do we suspect that the great majority of prisoners leaving prison, in most parts of the country, do not get the support that they need?

The Home Affairs Committee looked at prison regimes, and found that the latter possibility obtained. That is not the fault of the probation officers who have the responsibility to provide the service to prisoners; it is just that the present structures stand in the way of the provision of the more seamless service and the support that offenders need.

A few years ago, the social exclusion unit produced a report on reducing reoffending. It is arguably the best evidence-based piece of social policy published by any part of this Government since 1997, but very few of its recommendations—in respect of housing, employment, support for families, education, mental health services and drug treatment, and all the other provision that needs to be made to reduce reoffending—have been delivered. That also suggests that our existing structures are not delivering, and that the failure is a large one and not confined to a few localities.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): May I take the right hon. Gentleman back to what he said about the ability of the Secretary of State to control probation policy in general, as opposed to giving directions to particular boards? He will be familiar with paragraph 14 of schedule 1, which gives the new trusts a duty to

As far as I can see, that means that the Bill retains the ability to make policy changes nationally. However, does he agree that amendment (a) would mean that such changes would have to go through the local level, and could not be imposed directly at the national level?

Mr. Denham: I think that Ministers’ ability to influence what happens at local level should be stronger than it has been. I know that that is controversial, but I am one of those who have always been convinced that some element of community sentences should be carried out in uniform, where that is appropriate. Many Ministers have held that view over the past few years, but any implementation of such a policy has always been blocked by the autonomy of probation services.

We can debate whether it is desirable for probation services to be able to block policy development in that way. I believe that it is not.

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John McDonnell: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Denham: If I may, I should like to make a little progress before I give way to my hon. Friend.

In my view, we need to countenance change and open up the procedures. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow made the perfectly fair point that the Bill as it stands could mean that almost everything goes over to the private or voluntary sectors. However, a Bill such as this is almost inevitably drafted in that way, as it is difficult to incorporate in legislation a fixed percentage that becomes a target, limit or cap.

Although I believe that it is desirable to open the system up to new providers—and to providers that can provide the whole of a service and not merely work as subsidiaries to existing probation officers—the Government must take great care about the pace of change. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will bear that in mind.

Mr. Gerrard: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Denham: I shall give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), and then to my hon. Friend.

John McDonnell: I want to get this matter clear, for the record. My right hon. Friend says that we need a discussion about change. I am secretary of the parliamentary justice unions group, which has met representatives of most of the organisations involved in the consultation process of the past four years. None has resisted change, but 96 per cent. of respondents to the consultation said that they did not support the Government’s change proposals. Instead, they wanted to look at a co-operative approach at the local level to determine who best provided the service. Most of the people working in the sector have promoted that approach to Ministers, but the Government have resisted because of their obsession with privatisation.

Mr. Denham: As I think my hon. Friend will acknowledge, I have been a fairly persistent critic in the House and outside of some of the ways in which the Government have tried to introduce market mechanisms in other public services such as the NHS, so I cannot easily be put into the category of those who have an ideological drive to invoke the private sector—at least I do not think so. However, if all the relevant public sector partners in certain existing parts of the public sector were asked to work together to produce a better service, so many people who came to the table would have reasons not to change and would have excuses not to do things differently that nothing would ever change. That is the nettle we have to grasp this afternoon— [ Interruption. ] My hon. Friend is chuntering away, but—

John McDonnell: Will my right hon. Friend allow me to come back on that point?

Mr. Denham: Yes.

John McDonnell: The consultation the Government undertook was not just with public sector providers; it
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was with the voluntary and private sectors. Ninety-six per cent. of the respondents urged the Government not to go down the route now proposed, and most of them urged the Government to look at the Scottish model of co-operation.

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