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3.30 pm

Mr. Denham: I, too, have looked at the Scottish model. I entirely accept that I may be proved wrong, but my judgment is that it is too soggy to produce the radical change necessary at local level. I believe in partnership and co-operation, but in some circumstances opening a service to a new group of people who can deliver it differently is the only way to achieve radical change. The challenge to my hon. Friend the Minister is to get the pace of that change right.

I worry about some of the indicative targets set by the Home Secretary, because it is clear that if we decide to chase a target, the difficulty is that the contract will go to those with the management capacity to fulfil it, which will not necessarily produce the type of change we want. The type of new service that brings together, for example, a local authority housing department, a further education college and drug treatment and other services in a local area is much more likely to develop at district council level than regional level. My hon. Friend the Minister must take care that he does not drive the process too fast.

Mr. Garnier: I have listened carefully to the comments of the right hon. Gentleman and of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). Is the right hon. Gentleman convinced that we need a Bill at all to achieve what he wants, either at the pace he wants or at the pace the Government want?

Mr. Denham: I believe that we need a Bill, because although there are challenges—to say the least—in respect of a regional commissioning structure, it is not clear where else that function could be handled. I cannot see how it could be done easily under existing legislation. I know there is a debate about that point and my view may be wrong, but sometimes it is better that such things are set out in legislation. I do not want to take too much of the House’s time, but perhaps I could give an analogy. When I was a Health Minister I introduced all the legislation that set up primary care trusts. Arguably, no legislation was required, but it was better to have all the provisions in one piece of legislation.

Mr. Sutcliffe: My right hon. Friend is dealing with a point that is of concern to all colleagues—the issue of how much should be set out in targets. We think that there is an amount that could be contestable, but what drives us is not achieving targets for putting services out to the private sector. The question for us is: who can provide the best service? My right hon. Friend is entirely right; we are listening and we have said that we will be cautious. What drives us should be finding the best provider, and in most circumstances that is likely to be the public sector.

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend is right. The result of the process will be that many years down the line the
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greatest part of the service will be provided by those who provide it at present, but opening up to new ways of delivering it will enable much more rapid change to take place across the service as a whole than would otherwise have happened.

Martin Salter: My right hon. Friend is making a most helpful contribution. Does he agree that our hon. Friend the Minister would be well advised when he responds to the debate to move away from the ill-advised comments that we have heard previously about setting targets for contestability? Should not he respond to Members’ concerns by accepting limits to contestability, so that where it is used it is focused on services that are not delivering rather than being an ideological objective in its own right?

Mr. Denham: I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments. There is a huge difference between saying that 10 per cent. of a service should be open to different providers and setting a target that 10 per cent. of a service should be transferred to different providers. I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend the Minister said and found it extremely reassuring; he set out exactly the approach we should be taking. An artificial target that regional offender managers have to meet because their careers are on the line is not merely pointless; it is actually damaging.

My hon. Friend the Minister responded as fully as I could expect to the point I wanted to end on, so I shall conclude my remarks.

Patrick Hall: I rise in support of amendments Nos. 1 and 2 and amendment (a) to new clause 11, which were tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard).

I have listened carefully to the interesting contributions to the debate, especially that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham). However, I remain unconvinced that the Bill is truly necessary, as I think that everything that we want to see achieved and all the progress that needs to be made on tackling reoffending, increasing the role of the voluntary sector, meeting performance targets and enhancing public protection can be broadly met under existing arrangements. The claim that abolishing probation boards and putting all commissioning power in the hands of regional Home Office officials will tackle reoffending is, I feel, not backed up by the evidence. Nor have I heard a convincing set of arguments about that.

I am not in the least bit complacent about tackling reoffending, but it has been pointed out to me, and backed up with some real examples of individual experience in Bedfordshire, that some serial repeat offenders have, with the support of the probation service, changed their behaviour significantly. If, however, in the two-year period after sentencing, an individual offends just once, that is presented as a total failure. I would like to make it clear that the reoffending is absolutely unacceptable—I am not defending it at all—but what if someone who was regularly violent or made a career out of burglary stopped that behaviour but stole cigarettes from a supermarket once during that two-year period? Obviously, that is not acceptable, but in terms of its
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impact on the public, we need to view it in a significantly different way from violence or burglary. The statistics, however, do not acknowledge the need to do so at all.

As everyone who has contributed to the debate has made clear, the role of the voluntary and community sector in the criminal justice system is extremely important. From what I have learned over the past days and weeks, I believe that it has not been sufficiently developed. Its role is important for a number of reasons, but perhaps especially because it can specialise and fine-tune its services to all kinds of requirements in different parts of the country. At its best, it is rooted in the community and possesses local knowledge.

Most importantly of all, the voluntary and community sector is, and is seen to be, independent of the state. That is crucial because it makes it more likely to gain the confidence of offenders who may, quite understandably, have a jaundiced view of the authorities. The independence of that sector is therefore more likely to assist in reducing offending and in supporting ex-offenders into training, employment and accommodation, which are essential ingredients to improving public protection as well as improving the lives of those people. I totally accept the importance of increasing that sector’s role and I support the intention to do so.

The Government’s target for the probation service’s budget it that 5 per cent. of it, and then 10 per cent. by April next year, should be open to competition. That is supportable because it increases the chances of greater involvement by the voluntary sector.

A circular of 26 February written by Clinks, a membership body of voluntary organisations working within the criminal justice system, strongly supports and understandably welcomes the Government’s intention to increase the sector’s role. However, Clinks expresses two key concerns. First, it states:

Secondly, it states:

I also note from a letter to the Home Secretary from Katie Nutley, the chair of the St. Giles Trust—which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has helpfully made available to me—that, while she rightly welcomes the Government’s wish to boost the role of the voluntary sector, she also states that offender management and the enforcement of court orders and public protection

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That is one of the main questions before us today.

The Home Secretary has clearly made a compromise in new clause 11, as has been acknowledged, over the writing of court reports and the supervision of serious offenders. He has moved towards the position advocated in amendments Nos. 1 and 2—a position that is widely supported not just within the probation service but, as I have illustrated, within parts of the voluntary sector. However, the Home Secretary and the Ministers have not settled the matter beyond the next three years or so. New clause 12 allows for the repeal of the provisions in new clause 11. That signals the possibility that court reports and the supervision of high-risk offenders will be open to competition. Yes, the public sector could well win some or all of those competitions, but there is a risk that it would not.

There are risks inherent in putting those probation services out into the private sector, particularly in regard to issues of public accountability and scrutiny in relation to commercial confidentiality. There are also potential conflicts of interest and the inevitable temptation for Home Office civil servants, who will be the regional commissioners, to go for the lowest tender. That raises an important question about the competition. Will it be conducted on the basis of the disastrous compulsory competitive tendering regime that the previous Conservative Government imposed on local government, or of the more sensible best value approach introduced by this Government? We really need to know the answer to that question. Speculation on that point is bound to arise because of new clause 12.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and his ministerial colleagues could inject a great deal of comfort and stability into the proposed changes if new clause 12 were withdrawn. In any event, with or without new clause 12, it is essential that development on the ground is closely monitored from a quality assurance perspective in the years ahead, so that we can learn from best practice and take corrective measures when things go wrong. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to acknowledge the need to monitor the process, and to show a willingness to establish such a mechanism, with reports being made available to the House and to partner organisations.

One of my fears about the Bill is that it could trigger a process across the country in which local details get lost and forgotten or are not even noticed. I am informed, for example, that the Bedfordshire probation service contracts with a number of small local organisations to place one or two offenders, supervised by probation officers, undertaking unpaid work. Those contracts exist only because of trust between people who know each other at local level. I cannot see how the Home Office regional commissioner—known as ROM, the regional offender manager—will be able to deal with all those arrangements. There simply are not enough hours in the day. The Government’s answer is to say that local area agreements will cover the matter, and that the ROMs will have to take on board what is in the agreements.

In Bedfordshire local area agreements are not particularly well developed and I am not sure whether they are anywhere in the country—others may
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comment on that. The Government propose to put local area agreements on a much stronger footing through the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which is currently in Committee. Clause 79 of that Bill lists organisations and individuals who will be statutory partners with local councils in drawing up the local area agreements. The local probation board is listed as one of those. I wish to raise some points about how that will work with regard to tackling reoffending and helping to keep local knowledge and local contacts intact.

3.45 pm

Under the proposals in the Offender Management Bill, the chief probation officer will be the only statutory partner present who is unable to commission services. Others around the table, such as the chief constable, will be able to commission them. Should not the regional offender manager also be a partner? I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will heed that point. Furthermore, it will be up to the local council and its partners on the local area agreement to determine the priorities from a national list. I understand that there is national list of about 200 points and that each local area agreement will have to prioritise 35 of them. What if reoffending is not seen as a particular local priority? Perhaps it should be, but I do not think that it has to be. Those matters have to be addressed.

The mechanism of how local area agreements will work is not known at this point and will be left to local determination. That is the Government’s intention. However, we need some reassurance about how that mechanism will work with regard to tackling reoffending and enhancing rehabilitation and public safety. We need to know that local knowledge will not be lost. If the local area agreement says something in detail about how these issues are to be delivered—perhaps involving a continuation or enhancement of what already happens—we need to know how the regional offender manager, the Home Office official, will take that message on board and act on it, because that is the only mechanism whereby those things can be commissioned. There will not be a local commissioner on these matters. We have to address that.

In conclusion, I want to repeat first that I am disappointed with Government new clause 12, which is not necessary, secondly that there is a need to address the point about best value, thirdly that there is a need to monitor and report on progress in the years ahead, and fourthly that there is a need to consider how local area agreements will work and whether regional offender managers will be present in that respect. I look to my right hon. and hon. Friends to address those matters.

Judy Mallaber: I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Minister has listened to concerns, specifically on local accountability, although as the Bill proceeds I hope to hear more on the precise relationship between regional commissioners and local agencies and local area agreements. I also appreciate the amendment that excludes from the private sector the writing of court reports and assistance to the courts. From his comments earlier and the discussions that I have had with him, I understand that that would include, inevitably, a substantial element of the core work of
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probation officers in managing and supervising offenders, which goes along with their work in doing those court reports.

However, I would appreciate it if the Minister clarified exactly what is covered and the extent to which the provision already covers an exclusion from the private sector in relation to the purposes in clause 1(1)(c) on

I would appreciate knowing a bit more about how far the exclusion in relation to assistance to the courts already covers a definite commitment that the probation service would continue to provide the services relating to the supervision and management of offenders. That is covered in amendment No. 1, which has been signed by a number of hon. Members. I urge the Minister to consider further other areas that should be excluded from contestability and left with the probation service.

As several hon. Members have said, when I have had discussions about what should happen regarding the probation service and the management of offenders, no one has said that the voluntary sector should not be engaged with the criminal justice system when it has appropriate skills and services to offer that can help to deal with offenders. There are two good examples of the work of the voluntary sector in Derbyshire: Addaction provides drugs programmes in the system from police stations onwards; and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children provides sex offender programmes. Both those programmes do not count against the probation service’s budget, so when we hear people bandying about figures on how much of the service’s budget goes to the voluntary sector, they do not include such programmes. I understand that one of the Government’s priorities is that the voluntary sector should be able to provide such imaginative and innovative services.

Will the Minister consider seriously whether approved premises, to which amendment No. 1 refers, should be excluded? When he met probation officers with my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) and me, he said that the child sex offender review would be likely to recommend the strengthening of the approved premises sector, which is made up of 100-odd premises that house dangerous offenders who have left custody on licence. A dedicated and skilled work force in those premises carry out substantial supervision and active intervention.

The public would not understand why we would allow hostels housing dangerous offenders, including many child sex offenders, to be handed over to Group 4, but that would be allowed under the Bill. Some of the most dangerous and prolific offenders in the community are managed in such premises, and the premises provide vital intelligence to offender managers and the police, which, if an offender’s behaviour deteriorates, can often lead to enforcement, including a return to custody.

I ask the Minister to consider the evidence that although there is an intention that approved premises will be excluded from initial moves towards privatisation, there are examples of such services being prepared for possible contestability and privatisation.
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Can he say specifically that approved premises should be kept in the public sector? Should not the Bill provide that such premises are the purview of the probation service? It would be hard to justify taking such premises away from the probation service. Does he think that there any other aspects of the system that should be subject to exclusion?

Tom Levitt: Over the past few weeks, my position has moved from that on Second Reading, when, as a loyal Labour Back Bencher, I was happy to go along with the Bill, to that of today, when I feel passionate that the Bill must be passed in its current form. That has happened because of my experiences over the past few weeks, and I can cite three examples in particular. First, I received 800 responses to a questionnaire about crime and justice that I put out in my constituency. Among the clear messages that came from the questionnaire were that reoffending rates were too high, that we could not be complacent about that and that we had to take drastic action to ensure that reoffending rates came down.

A series of consultation events was held around my constituency with magistrates, police officers, people who worked with ex-offenders and, principally, members of the public. At those events, we also heard a strong message about reoffending. A chap called Bob Auld, who is well known to me and many in the High Peak Labour party, came to one of the events. He would be proud to be called a Stalinist and the last defender of the producer interest. Bob told us that he had worked with ex-offenders many times over the years in different circumstances. He said that the Bill has to go through, and his message was that we must shake off our complacency about reoffending. He put it in terms of having seen the light; I am sure that it was not quite as dramatic as that.

My third experience in recent weeks was to visit the Hollowford outdoor centre in Castleton in Hope Valley in my constituency and meet a group of young offenders. I saw the work that was being done with them by that charity and the interest of the people involved in working with those young people. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), I do not decry the passion and interest of probation officers, but there is an extra quality that can be brought by those who have chosen voluntarily to give their time to charitable causes such as working with ex-offenders to stop reoffending. By talking to the young offenders, I could tell that the people whom I met were having that effect.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware of the Circles project that operates in the Thames valley. It is run by a group of Quakers and works on an individual basis with former sex offenders. It has been going for several years, and I understand that it has other projects besides that in the Thames valley. It claims a zero reoffending rate because of the nature of the support given to individuals by people working voluntarily. Whatever the figures are, I am certain that the project gives us a model that could be replicated and built on elsewhere, and the voluntary sector is quite capable of delivering it.

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