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Clause added to the Bill

It being more than three and a half hours after commencement of proceedings on the motion, Madam Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour, pursuant to Order [this day].

New Clause 12

Power to repeal section (Restriction on certain arrangements under section 3(2))

‘(1) The Secretary of State may by order repeal section (Restriction on certain arrangements under section 3(2)).

(2) The power under this section includes power to provide for that section to cease to have effect for such purposes as may be specified in the order.’.— [Mr. Sutcliffe.]

Brought up, read the First time and Second time, and added to the Bill.

Clause 28

Orders and Regulations

Amendment made: No. 24, in page 20, line 14, at end insert—

New Clause 4

Qualification etc of probation staff

‘The Home Secretary shall by regulation prescribe the qualifications and standards of staff to be employed by a provider of probation services.’.— [Kerry McCarthy.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

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

New clause 7— Provision of speech therapy, etc.—

‘(1) It shall be the duty of each provider of probation services to ensure that—

(a) every prisoner and young offender is assessed for speech, language and communication impairments by a qualified therapist,

(b) contractual arrangements are made to provide any therapy required consequent on this assessment.

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(2) For the purposes of this section a “qualified therapist” shall be a therapist of not fewer than five years’ standing, qualified in accordance with regulations prescribed by the Secretary of State.’.

Amendment No. 22, in page 5, line 18, clause 6, at end insert—

‘(5) The Secretary of State shall, by regulation, make provision as to the necessary training and skills for an officer of any provider of probation services.’.

Amendment No. 20, in page 10, line 28, clause 13, at end insert—

‘( ) A worker at a contracted-out prison shall be subject to qualification requirements that the Secretary of State shall by regulation define.’.

4.30 pm

Kerry McCarthy: My objective in moving the new clause is to enshrine in the Bill assurances that have already been given by the Minister that, to quote from a letter from him to probation staff,

The Bill envisages that many more employers will be involved in the delivery of probation services. They might be public, private or voluntary sector employers, and they will deliver a range of services under a variety of contracts and subcontracts. I should add that I support the broad thrust of the legislation; there is much to be gained from greater voluntary sector involvement—and, indeed, from private sector involvement—in work with offenders and in tackling reoffending.

There is, however, considerable concern among probation officers about how the legislation will affect them both as individual workers who might lose their jobs if services are contracted out and as a profession. I have been told by the National Association of Probation Officers and individual probation officers in my constituency that morale in the service is very low, and one of the reasons that they give for that is the uncertainty that remains about how some of the measures in the Bill will affect their profession. I hope that the Minister will be able to provide them with some reassurances today.

My main concern—and the reason why I have moved the new clause—is that in clause 6, which relates to staff who

there is no mention of the training standards, qualifications or accreditation that will be required of those who will be involved in delivering services under some of the new contracts. Because the Bill is silent on that point, there are concerns that it could lead to the de-professionalisation of the probation service. It has been suggested to me that if the voluntary sector and the private sector are awarded contracts, they will be allowed to employ people who are less well-qualified and less experienced than those currently working in the probation service, and that as a result they will provide a less effective service. It has even been suggested to me that that could put the public at risk.

It currently costs £70,000 to train in the probation service. It is a mandatory requirement for trainee probation officers who wish to work with medium and
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high-level offenders in England and Wales to acquire a diploma in probation services. Will that still be the case if the proposed legislation is enacted even if such services are eventually provided by other organisations? Also, what about those involved in work under the new contracts that is perhaps more peripheral, but which is certainly equally important and sometimes highly sensitive? What skills, qualifications and accreditation will be required of them?

In Committee, the Minister said in response to similar points that it was intended that information on such matters should form part of the bid of a contracting company or voluntary organisation—that those bidding for contracts would be required to outline in their tendering documents how they intended to recruit and retain highly motivated, qualified and supported staff. Committee members were told that an assurance and accreditation process will continue to run, and that contracts will specify the skills, experience and qualifications required for a particular task. Will the Minister confirm whether national occupational standards will apply across the board? Will there be clear performance criteria that workers will be expected to meet and standards of quality that they will be expected to achieve? If so, how will that be monitored and enforced?

I am seeking reassurance that there will not be a two-tier system—that the same standards will apply to everyone involved in delivering probation services, no matter who employs them or what the contractual arrangements are. We need to be sure that the professionalism of the service is maintained, that rigorous standards are enforced and that the service’s overriding concern—to protect the British public from offenders and from the risk of reoffending—will be maintained. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in response to my remarks.

Mr. Garnier: I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy), who was a member of the Bill Committee. I am unsure whether she raised the issue under discussion in Committee, but it is certainly worth doing so now, because although unlike her I support moving the probation services away from a state monopoly—perhaps it is like her, as I am unsure of her position on this—I have concerns about whether private providers should be as qualified as those within the state sector.

What the hon. Lady had to say about her new clause, and what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) will doubtless say in support of his amendments Nos. 22 and 20, will clearly command broad support. We do not want an over-bureaucratic system or one that inhibits people’s desire to do such work; nor do we want to inhibit their desire to enter the probation services more generally. Other than those brief remarks about new clause 4 and amendments Nos. 22 and 20, I shall allow others to speak to them.

I want on my behalf and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) to speak briefly in support of new clause 7. My hon. Friend would have been here, but sadly—or happily, depending on how one cares to look at it—he is chairing a debate in Westminster Hall and cannot be in
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two places at once. I hope that Members will find not only the new clause but my remarks to be wholly uncontroversial.

In Committee on 23 January, we had a clause stand part debate on clause 20, which dealt with the provision of medical services within the prison estate. It was an uncontroversial view during that debate that mental ill health in prisons is a tremendous problem. A huge number—about 70 per cent.—of the people given custody have at least two identifiable mental illnesses. I am talking not just about people who are deeply depressed about being in prison, but about people with identifiable mental conditions. The sad thing is that about the same percentage leave prison in exactly the same condition.

New clause 7 addresses itself not to mental health but to a related issue: the ability of prisoners and young offenders to communicate in a way that permits them to relate to other members of society—even authority figures such as police officers—without resorting to criminal activity. One problem that befalls many young offenders—who, sadly, are then churned into the adult criminal justice system—is that they cannot read and write and express themselves sufficiently to avoid criminal behaviour. A young man who cannot express his frustrations and deal with his anger in any way other than through violence is going to end up in prison. I, my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham and all right-thinking Members of this House want youngsters to be diverted from crime through education and the proposed form of therapy, which has identifiable and empirically provable benefits.

The noble Lord Ramsbotham, the former chief inspector of prisons, frequently tells the following story, and it is a pity that he frequently has to tell it. On visiting a particular prison—I hope that I am relaying the story correctly—he was told that speech, language and communication therapy simply was not available to young offenders and adult prisoners. As a consequence, this hideous carousel of youngsters who cannot articulate and deal with their frustrations goes round and round. I am therefore urging the Government, in this brief debate on new clause 7, to take on board our concerns. I have a suspicion that the Minister’s privately shares my concerns precisely, and I want him to translate his private view into action on the part of his Department and the Government.

Our previous debate, in which I played a small part, was perhaps not an occasion on which to address the question of introducing the private provision of speech and language therapists. However, now that we have passed that particular watermark—high or low depending on which side of the debate one took—we may return to a more consensual approach. I urge all right hon. and hon. Members to support new clause 7.

Mr. Heath: To follow the point made by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) on the general provision of health services in prisons and his reference to mental health provision, it is a scandal that up to one in 10 of all prisoners have a functional psychosis. They should not be in prison. Having said that, it is important that we improve medical and mental health provision within the prison setting. The Minister was earlier able to cite Martin Narey in
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support of his argument, yet he has repeatedly made the point that medical provision in the prison system is simply inadequate. The prison system should provide a much better level of medical support to those who are incarcerated, and that includes mental health provision.

The hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) has addressed one particular issue to do with the inability of many prisoners to communicate effectively through speech or in written form. There is a direct correlation between lack of literacy and communication skills and the propensity to get into trouble with the law. It has been shown to be the case that one of the most effective rehabilitative processes in prisons is educational provision that is targeted at improving spoken and written communication skills. The evidence shows that such provision reduces recidivism, so it is a mystery to me why we do not address it effectively. It would be relatively inexpensive, but it is missing in most prisons. If we can use the opportunity provided by the Bill to draw attention to that fact, we could make progress in the right direction.

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the problem is not only the ability to get people into prisons who could provide such education and training, but the lack of prison officers available to take prisoners into classrooms to receive that training?

Mr. Heath: My hon. Friend is right. I have heard him speak with great passion on that subject many times and I know that he understands the importance of that issue to the treatment of prisoners. At the moment, the whole system is not properly geared to addressing one of the principal problems that so many prisoners face: their lack of ability to communicate with the rest of society. Because they cannot communicate, they have recourse to criminality. That is not an excuse, but it is—on an evidential basis—one of the reasons.

Mr. Garnier: In my desire to be speedy, I forgot to say something, and the observations of the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) have reminded me. Yesterday, I visited Wandsworth prison and met the people carrying out the Toe-by-Toe reading programme that is sponsored by the Shannon Trust, a private charity. That programme offers another example of how prisoners’ lives—and thus the security of the wider population—can be improved be reducing reoffending. Under the scheme, prisoners teach other prisoners to read so that they can communicate and live more sensible lives.

4.45 pm

Mr. Heath: I entirely agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman. One positive thing to emerge from our debates is the consensus that teaching prisoners to read should be a priority for NOMS in the future.

Earlier, the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) spoke to her new clause 4. It is very similar to my amendment No. 22, in that it would ensure that those who provide probation services have the appropriate training and skills. I do not want to
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overstate the concern, as I believe that the Bill to a large extent will ensure that appropriate organisations undertake probation work, and that they will have regard for the skills, training and qualifications of their staff. However, we must be aware that one variable in the competitive tendering process could be the qualifications of the staff who are taken on.

By recruiting people who are not fully qualified for the task, private sector organisations would be able to tender beneath the price of the public sector. If we are to be responsible in our discussion of the Bill, we must accept that that is a risk. I made clear earlier in the debate my appreciation of the calibre and commitment of probation officers, and the quality of rehabilitation and custodial services that are provided relies very heavily on their ability to deal appropriately and effectively with the people in their care. Those officers need to know how to supervise their charges, with proper regard for the safety of the public, and how to help with their rehabilitation. Clause 3 opens up the possibility that our assumptions about the quality and qualifications of those who provide the probation services could be swept aside. That would be a retrograde step, and the effectiveness and quality of service delivery across the country inevitably would fall.

I have no great love of regulation, but the need for probation officers to have a level of qualification appropriate to the needs of prisoners and of society means that there should be a degree of regulation by the Secretary of State. Indeed, we have that at the moment, as I understand that probation officers are required to have either a certificate of qualification in social work or a diploma in probation studies. While they are acquiring those skills, officers are given a protected case load so that the public are not put at risk through misadventure caused by their inexperience. We need the guarantee that such qualifications confer, and I hope that the Minister will give an assurance on the matter.

Amendment No. 20 would make similar provision for those who work in the Prison Service. Although it is not quite the same as the probation service, prison officers must go through a vetting process. They face selection tests and receive specific training, with continual assessment and support from experienced staff. That will all change with the application of clause 13, which will open up the profession of prison officer to allow other staff members to work on those tasks without the same degree of training and vetting.

We need to do one of two things: to restrict the areas of work open to non-trained people or to insist that people engaged in such work have the appropriate qualifications, with mandatory training and supervision at the level required. There are already human rights concerns about individual prisoners in custody, and the Joint Committee on Human Rights is looking into them. The judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Wainwright v. the United Kingdom underlines the need for stringent procedural safeguards associated with the power to search in prisons. I am sure that the Government want to comply with the ruling and that they have no intention of derogating from that requirement, but that means that staff must be properly trained and supervised.

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