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28 Feb 2007 : Column 999

Will the Minister explain the purpose of clause 13? I am not sure exactly what its implications are. At face value, it seems to open up various tasks in the Prison Service to less qualified people. If that is the case, safeguards are appropriate, and my amendment No. 20 would ensure that they were introduced.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am grateful to Members who have tabled amendments. There have been a number of strands in this short but useful and important debate and they are all underpinned by shared concern about staff and standards. As I have said in other debates, the Government share those concerns, too. We are utterly committed to the maintenance of high standards in the delivery of services to offenders, because we recognise that that is the only way to achieve results. There would be a heavy price to pay if anything we did dumbed down those delivery standards and that is not what we want to do; public protection is key in all that we are trying to achieve.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) for proposing new clause 4, which relates to staff employed by a provider of probation services, as it gives me an opportunity to clarify what we have in mind and, I hope, to offer her and other Members reassurance about what we are trying to achieve. Contrary to the suggestions that have sometimes been made, our proposals categorically do not signal the end of probation as a profession. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We are determined to ensure that all providers have staff with the right qualifications and training for the work they carry out and that will be enshrined in contracts. If a provider cannot demonstrate that they can fulfil that expectation they will not be awarded the contract in the first place.

Do we need to go further and put those provisions in legislation? At present, there are no statutory requirements in that regard, and there is some variety across the country in the type of staff undertaking different work. There is a balance to be struck between allowing local providers the freedom to develop solutions that work for them and ensuring consistent standards. However, I understand why, in this new world of multiple providers, my hon. Friend may feel that further reassurance is needed.

The probation service already operates under clear and explicit national standards for service delivery, approved by the Secretary of State. National standards will continue to apply when the Bill becomes law. We are developing a comprehensive qualification framework for both offender management and interventions. It goes beyond the current probation officer qualification and will be required of all staff. That framework, combined with national standards, will impose strict requirements on all providers to ensure that the highest levels of professionalism are met.

Mr. Heath: Is the Minister saying that the new framework and the qualifications therein will apply to anyone contracted to carry out probation work within the meaning of the Bill in whichever sector they are performing that task?

Mr. Sutcliffe: At the level of requirement of those skills. The point I am making is that there is no
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statutory responsibility to provide it, so probation officers, Prison Service officers and a variety of others are involved.

At the moment, the intention is that this will be a policy document, which will be reinforced by contract. Again, I am considering whether I can strengthen the status in any way and I will report back on options when the Bill reaches the other place, as we can develop through negotiation. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East tabled a probing amendment designed to gain some reassurance that we will look further into the matter, so I hope that she will feel able to withdraw it.

I move on to deal with amendment No. 20, which relates to staff in private prisons. As I explained in Committee—the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) will have read the Hansard—the inclusion of a requirement for the Secretary of State to set particular qualification requirements for staff in private prisons is unnecessary in the light of safeguards contained within and outside the clause. In fact, it introduces unwarranted additional bureaucracy as a result. Having formed that view, I suppose that I need to explain to Members how and why I have done so.

First, I remind Members that no such formal requirements apply to equivalent public sector staff performing the same duties. Neither are any of the powers proposed any different from those exercised by the equivalent public sector staff. Even if we ignored those factors, we would contend that the successful track record of private companies in delivering custodial services in the 14 years since the first private prison was opened already offers assurance that they can be relied on to recruit competent staff.

I have mentioned the name of Martin Narey before and I will mention it again. When he was the director general of the Prison Service, he praised private contractors. They have certainly been a key driver of the improved treatment of prisoners and—under what is sometimes termed the decency agenda—of ensuring more decent prison regimes. He believed that it came from the commitment and involvement of the private sector in addition to what was going on in the public sector. I think that that seal of approval applies to all members of staff in the private sector, including non-prison custody officer staff who play a vital role in ensuring the effective operation of private prisons.

Private prison contractors already undergo thorough pre-employment checks, which include a requirement to disclose all previous convictions. Under section 85 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991, prisoner custody officer grades—the equivalent to prison officers in public prisons—must be authorised to perform their duties by the public sector prisoner custody officer certification unit, which is quite a mouthful. Although other staff are not subject to the same certification requirements as prisoner custody officers, they are still cleared via the same unit as part of their pre-employment checks.

Any person seeking to work in a private prison receives a basic enhanced police check and, in addition, any person working in a juvenile prison or who will come into contact with children or vulnerable adults also undergoes a Criminal Records Bureau check. Such pre-employment checks are wholly consistent with
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those undertaken on equivalent grades in the public sector, in relation to which the amendment would not apply.

The private sector is no different from the public sector in seeking to ensure that it benefits from staff who are fully trained and competent to conduct their roles. All private prison contractors require any newly appointed staff to undertake training prior to commencing their duties in the same way as in the public sector. Training may vary between contractors, but the common goal remains the same—to have a work force with the necessary skills to deliver the contract. Failure to do so would completely undermine the ability to generate new work in the future and would expose the contractors to risk within current operations.

It is also worth remembering that controllers have the ability to examine training packages and even attend sessions if they wish. Indeed, the changes proposed elsewhere in the Bill actually free them up to spend more time to provide this quality assurance. In addition, once authorised and fully trained, certain safeguards are in place to ensure that the work covered by clause 13 is done by the right people.

The clause requires that, prior to being deployed to perform a task listed in an order made under it, a member of staff must be authorised by the director. We can anticipate, in deciding whether to authorise any individual, the director will take into account whether the person is properly trained, has the appropriate experience and is generally suitable to undertake the duty. Importantly, any authorisation given by a director may be made subject to appropriate limitations or conditions and cannot, of itself, authorise the use of force in any circumstances.

5 pm

In regard to the safeguards that are in place outside the ambit of the clause, further checks and safeguards are provided by the fact that the controller of each prison may personally monitor staff undertaking these duties whenever they wish. Safeguards are also provided by the presence of an independent monitoring board in each prison, and by the existence of an avenue of complaint to the independent prisons and probation ombudsman.

Finally, quite apart from the risk to the contractor of losing future business opportunities, there is the potential for severe financial penalties to be imposed for allowing operational failures to occur under existing contracts. We therefore feel that there is a powerful vested financial interest for contractors to ensure that their staff are suitable for the jobs that they are employed to carry out. I hope that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, having listened to what I have said, will be satisfied that his amendment to clause 13 is unnecessary, and that he will agree not to press it.

New clause 7 proposes that probation services should carry out the legal duty to ensure the provision of speech and language services in prisons. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow); I understand that he is not in the Chamber at the
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moment, for the reasons given by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier). In Committee, we debated mental health provision and other health provision, and I recollect that the hon. Member for Buckingham also raised the issue in oral questions a few weeks ago. I am well aware of his interest in these matters, and I know that it is not a passing interest; it is something that he feels passionately about. Indeed, I think that he chairs the new all-party group that has been set up to look at this issue. I do not, therefore, dismiss his views on the subject lightly.

I know, however, that the hon. Member for Buckingham and other hon. Members will recognise that the responsibility for commissioning these and all other health treatments sits best where it does now: with the NHS. That is why we have ensured that NHS primary care trusts commission health care for people in prison and on probation in the same way as they do for their communities, on the basis of comprehensive assessments of local need. They do that under existing health legislation, and it is unnecessary to legislate further for specific services.

In April last year, the Government completed the transfer of prison health services to the NHS from the Prison Service. That process began in 2003 and, since then, we have increased the investment in health services in prisons from £118 million to nearly £200 million this year. This change has given prisoners access to mainstream NHS services. All prisoners receive a health screening on reception into prison, as well as a general learning needs assessment. Where a need for speech and language therapy is identified, a referral to an NHS therapist is made.

Indeed, the number of speech and language therapists employed in the NHS has increased by 38.8 per cent. since 1997, with 6,759 being employed at September 2005. I know that there is an issue about where those people are placed, and about their not being placed in custodial establishments, but the opportunity exists for teams to go into such establishments. Given this progress and the significant improvements in prisoner health care, there is no good reason to begin transferring elements of this responsibility back into the criminal justice system. Transferring prison health care to the NHS was the right thing to do, and I know that Members on both sides of the House share that view.

On young offenders, the Department of Health will be extending child and adolescent mental health services—CAMHS—in young offender institutions. This will mean additional services for young people in custody, including child psychiatry, child psychology, community psychiatric nursing, speech and language therapy, psychotherapy and occupational and creative therapies. I am pleased to say that the additional funding for these new services has now been secured by the Department of Health, and is expected to go out to the service commissioners in early summer.

New clause 7 proposes that these assessments should be made only by a qualified therapist with five years’ experience. The NHS requirement is for the therapists to be registered with the Health Professionals Council after completing a degree at undergraduate or postgraduate level. That is a high level of qualification and it is unclear to me why the hon. Member for Buckingham thinks that it is appropriate for prisoners
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to have a legal right to professionals with greater experience than those available to the rest of community. I believe that that is unjustified and I hope that the House agrees. That is not to say that we are complacent on the issue. I look forward to the work that the all-party group will do and I expect to be in regular contact with it on this issue. There is some interesting work taking place on speech therapy and behavioural patters, and nutrition and behavioural patterns. I hope that with those assurances about what we intend to do, the new clause will be withdrawn.

Kerry McCarthy: In light of the assurances that the Minister has given, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2

Responsibility for ensuring the provision of probation services

Mr. Sutcliffe: I beg to move amendment No. 12, page 2, line 44, at end insert—

‘(2A) The Secretary of State must have regard to the aims mentioned in subsection (2B) in the exercise of his functions under subsections (1) and (2) (so far as they may be exercised for any of the probation purposes).

(2B) Those aims are—

(a) the protection of the public;

(b) the reduction of re-offending;

(c) the proper punishment of offenders;

(d) ensuring offenders’ awareness of the effects of crime on the victims of crimes and the public; and

(e) the rehabilitation of offenders.’.

In Committee, the Opposition tabled a new clause that proposed the inclusion of probation aims in the Bill. We had a useful discussion and I made it clear at that time that I was sympathetic to the new clause and the arguments made in support of it. I said that I would consider the matter further. Having done so, I have concluded that it would be sensible to enshrine the aims of probation in statute, to make it clear to all what our overarching objectives are. Although aims can be and are stated clearly in the published plans of the National Offender Management Service and in contracts with providers, I agree that it is helpful to a shared sense of purpose and continuity to place them in statute. That also helps to emphasise that the structural changes proposed in the Bill do not erode the fundamental purpose of probation, which will remain unchanged.

The amendment applies statutory aims to the functions of the Secretary of State and will oblige commissioners to ensure that those aims are enshrined in the contracts that they agree with providers. The aims are the same as those that the Opposition included in their new clause in Committee and they replicate the aims that currently apply to probation by virtue of section 2 of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000. We discussed in Committee whether those aims could be improved and different views were expressed. I accept that arguments could be made for recasting the existing aims—that will always be the case—but they have served us well and encapsulate
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effectively our current and future priorities. I hope that the House will support the amendment.

Mr. Garnier: I think that the Minister was referring to the debate in Committee on 23 January, when I moved a new clause 4, which read:

That new clause is not identical to the amendment that the Minister has just moved, but the broad thrust of it is the same. At the end of our debate, the Minister said in reference to our new clause:

If he has changed his mind, I for one am very pleased about that.

Clearly, one of the primary aims, if not the primary aim, of the criminal justice system—and, for that matter, a Government—is to ensure that the public are protected from crime and criminals. If adopting Government amendment No. 12 and thus inserting proposed subsection (2B)(a) in the Bill focuses the minds of those whom engage in that sort of activity, so much the better.

The second aim is the reduction of reoffending. As was the case in Committee, I am worried—as, I dare say, are the wider public—by the appalling rate of reoffending among those who have been released from custody. The reoffending rate for adult prisoners within two years of their release from custody is 67 per cent, while the rate for young offenders is nearer to 80 per cent. If I may say so, that represents a huge waste of public money. Housing an adult prisoner costs about £37,500 a year, while the cost of housing a young offender is about £70,000. If we are putting those people in custody, yet they are coming out in exactly the same condition in terms of education, drug addiction or social aptitude and then reoffending, we are wasting the public’s money.

As I pointed out in Committee, I want the Government to deal with the problem. Prisons and young offender institutions are getting fuller and fuller, but the reoffending rate is not decreasing. There is a direct correlation between the reoffending rate and the overcrowding of our prisons. I visited Wandsworth prison yesterday. I would guess that 80 per cent. of the cells in the prison are double-occupied. The number of people in big London prisons who are crammed into small spaces and living in fairly unhygienic conditions is simply appalling.

Not so very long ago, a wing of Norwich prison was decanted of its prisoners so that the accommodation could be improved. The prisoners had been living in their own sewage. The governor and the Prison Service clearly needed to do something about that, but, owing to overcrowding, the wing has had to be reoccupied. The situation is appalling for not only the prisoners, but the prison officers who have to work in such filthy conditions. If we think that reformed and rehabilitated prisoners are going to be placed back on our streets
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when they are coming out of a prison estate in which some of them are living in their own sewage, we are misguided.

The reduction of reoffending is a hugely important social and moral public policy aim. I am thus delighted that it will be included in the Bill through proposed subsection (2B)(b). However, such a measure will require the Government to deal rapidly and effectively with overcrowding. Overcrowding in our prison estate is the bedrock problem that is preventing a reduction in reoffending. It prevents people from getting on to courses to help them to get off drugs, or to learn to read, write and to do simple mathematics.

Yesterday, in HMP Wandsworth, I saw that people in that large London prison, most of whom were probably serving sentences shorter than three years, far too often got ready to go on a literacy or numeracy course, or a course to deal with alcohol or drug abuse, but then had to be moved on to another prison because of overcrowding. That causes them to miss out on such courses because when they get to the new prison, they go to the bottom of the queue for the course that is relevant to their needs. Although I do not have much sympathy for those who commit crimes and have to be sent to prison, it is utterly counter-productive merely to warehouse people in prison and then to expect them not to reoffend when they come out.

Proposed paragraph (c) sets out the aim of the “proper punishment of offenders”. We all want the proper punishment of offenders not because we are vindictive, although retribution is one of the three elements of any criminal justice punishment system, but because we want offenders to come to terms with their offending.

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