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Disclosure for offender management purposes

Mr. Sutcliffe: I beg to move amendment No. 13, in page 6, line 39, at end insert—

‘(aa) a relevant local authority;’.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 21, in page 7, line 2, at end insert—

‘(h) representatives of local authorities.’.

Government amendment No. 14.

Mr. Sutcliffe: In Committee, I agreed to consider an amendment to include representatives of local authorities in the list of “listed persons” in subsection (2). The intention of the clause is to put beyond doubt for the main parties involved in managing offenders with whom and for what purposes data can be shared.

It has been our view that it would not be sensible to include other organisations at this stage as “listed persons” on the basis that they might in future need to be included. However, we have recognised the unique position of local authorities and their existing responsibilities as regards offender management. In particular, they have established an important role with regard to the multi-agency public protection arrangements and the proper consideration of the housing and safeguarding of vulnerable groups. There is no reason to think that the sharing of data is or should be confined to specific types of very serious case, and on reflection we think that it would improve the Bill if that were recognised by the inclusion of local authorities in subsection (2).

The amendment adds local authorities to the list of persons concerned in subsection (2), with the effect that local authorities will be able to exchange information with NOMS on a reciprocal basis for offender management purposes, but that does not entitle a local authority to share information on a reciprocal basis with other bodies listed in subsection (2), as those bodies are not part of NOMS.

Typically, we envisage that local authorities will exchange information about offenders for whom they are providing housing or education or fulfilling social
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services department responsibilities. Importantly, however, the amendment does not restrict and exclude other areas in which local authorities already obtain information about offenders when performing important wider functions. One such example is the mandatory indicator in local area agreements between Government and local authorities to reduce the proportion of adult and young offenders, and prolific and other priority offenders, who reoffend.

5.45 pm

Not enabling the sharing of such information, on an express basis, would deprive NOMS of important operational flexibility when carrying out its offender management duties. Given the safeguards on data sharing imposed by the European convention on human rights and the Data Protection Act 1998, we can see no good reason for that. With that explanation, I hope that the House will accept the amendment.

James Brokenshire: I welcome the amendment. The role of local government in the context of probation services, and the need for local authorities to be engaged within the data sharing process, was highlighted in Committee. The Local Government Association has welcomed the amendment for its formal recognition of the status of local authorities. The Minister alluded to the role of local area agreements. It is essential for local authorities to be engaged in the data sharing process to maximise any opportunities flowing from local area agreements, and to put that into force at the community level.

Clearly, local authorities have an essential role to play, in a range of services, in reducing reoffending and supporting work undertaken at the community level to cut crime and deal with offenders appropriately and effectively. The issue of housing was highlighted by the Minister, and it was mentioned by the Opposition earlier in relation to our amendments on sex offenders. Those sorts of issues put the essential role of local authorities in fulfilling many aspects of probation services into context. Councils have a role to play in providing education for offenders in the basic skills of reading and writing, the lack of which inhibits their ability to get jobs and re-skill. Employment opportunities can lift offenders out of their situations, thereby cutting crime and preventing further offending.

The amendment reflects and recognises the essential role that local authorities, councils and communities have in the probation function and in dealing with crime as a whole. It is only a pity that the same approach has not been taken in relation to other aspects of the Bill that remain centrally focused and driven from the top rather than from the community level.

Mr. Heath: I thank the Minister for introducing Government amendment No. 13, which is similar in form to my amendment No. 21, although perhaps in a slightly better position in the context of the clause.

I tabled my amendment because I was impatient at the time taken to follow up the assurance given in Committee, but the Minister got there in the end, and I am grateful for it.

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Mr. Sutcliffe: I thank hon. Gentlemen for their contributions. Local authorities do play a key role, and the amendment acknowledges that. I hope that the amendment is supported.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 14, in page 7, line 36, at end insert—

‘(7A) In this section “relevant local authority” means a county council in England, a Welsh county council or county borough council, a district council, a London borough council, the Common Council of the City of London or the Council of the Isles of Scilly.’.— [Mr. Sutcliffe.]

Clause 14

Powers of director of a contracted out prison

John McDonnell: I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 10, line 29, leave out clause 14.

In the limited time available, I want to raise a critical issue. The Prison Governors Association has made representations to Members on both sides of the House about clause 14. Let me explain the background. The previous Administration introduced the initial legislation to privatise prisons, which allowed the private sector to take over new prisons and to run them. A clause was inserted in that Bill, which became section 85(3) of the Criminal Justice Act 1991. It specifically safeguarded that responsibility for punishment within prisons should be performed by controllers who are Crown servants and not by the directors of the private company. The Crown servants or controllers were established to adjudicate on prisoners and, where appropriate, to award penalties for offences against prison discipline. Controllers are therefore the only people able to make decisions about punishment during sentence. They alone can decide on issues to do with segregation, cell confinement and the use of mechanical constraints.

Clause 14 would remove that restriction; it would pass to directors of private companies the role of undertaking disciplinary action against prisoners. That could lead to a conflict of interest in the role of directors of such companies. Their prime responsibility is to maximise profits for their company, whereas they would also have the semi-judicial role of determining whether any disciplinary action should be taken against individual prisoners. Let me give an example of the kind of conflict of interest that might arise.

One of the main means by which prisoners are disciplined is the imposition of fines—the withdrawal of their income earned as a result of the labour they undertake in prisons. That income is paid by the private sector company running the prison; therefore, that company will accrue a saving to itself if it fines prisoners. Although such judgments are currently made by the independent controller, they have an effect in the long-term review of prisoners’ cases in reports on their behaviour in prison that are prepared for decisions on their possible parole, home detention or release on licence. Therefore, those judgments have a significant impact on prisoners’ lives.

I am concerned that we are passing over those powers from controllers to private company directors
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in such a way that the faith of prisoners and others in the independence of judicial decision making with regard to the behaviour of prisoners in prisons will be undermined. Therefore, I ask the Minister to look again at this matter before the Bill passes to the House of Lords. Although it is accepted that controllers will still exist, their role will not be to make day-to-day adjudications and decisions about individual prisoners; it will simply be to have an overview of the overall practice of private companies.

The Prison Governors Association has expressed concern that the role played by private companies will be paid for by cuts in the controller service. The PGA believes that that will undermine the effectiveness of the service provided by the controllers. This might appear to be a minor matter, but it could cause problems in implementing the legislation. Therefore, I ask the Government to look again at it, and I hope that when the Bill passes to another place there might be an opportunity to amend it accordingly.

Mr. Garnier: The hon. Gentleman has made his points clear. I have some reservations about the ability of non-Crown servants to act as judges in the punishment system, but I suspect that that can be dealt with in a fairly intelligent way, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) to the points that I made about clause 14 in Committee on 18 January, when that clause was discussed in detail. Through it, we are seeking to transfer to directors of private prisons certain powers currently exercised by controllers—Crown servants—regarding the segregation, control and disciplining of prisoners.

It is important to keep it in mind that we are not seeking through the clause to create any new powers. The powers of segregation and adjudication are essential control tools for maintaining order, control and discipline in our prisons. Rather, the clause transfers the responsibility in private prisons for segregation and adjudication from a Crown servant—the controller—to a private sector employee, the director, who under contract acts on behalf of the Secretary of State. Although we accept that the current restrictions made sense when private prisons were first introduced, they appear to be increasingly unnecessary, especially as the private sector has been credited, as I said earlier, with helping significantly to improve conditions for prisoners and has had a central role in advancing the decency agenda across the prison estate.

Directors can already take decisions about the segregation of prisoners in an emergency; indeed, such decisions are more likely to be taken in those circumstances. In such cases, the director has to seek retrospective approval from the controller. There is no evidence that that system has been abused since the opening of the first private prison, Wolds, in 1992.

Adjudication powers can also be transferred safely to directors, who will operate within the same constraints of prison rules as public sector governors and will use exactly the same procedures as those laid out in the prison discipline manual. Hearings that may result in the award of additional days will have to be passed to an independent adjudicator, in line with operations in the public sector.

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The benefits of the change are that directors will be able directly to influence order and discipline in the prisons for which they are responsible, and controllers will be freed from a time-consuming task to spend time monitoring the delivery of the contract and the quality of service provided. The discipline system in private prisons will mirror that in the public sector for the first time.

John McDonnell: There seems to be some contradiction in what the Minister is saying. The National Offender Management Service has issued to controllers a statement saying that there will be a reduction in controllers’ overall budget, which will now be used to pay private companies to undertake the provision. So there will be no additional capacity among controllers to undertake the work that the Minister describes.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, and I undertake to look at it. My understanding is that the intention is to ensure that controllers are not subject to under-capacity. However, given the time scale—

John McDonnell: If the Minister could offer an assurance that there will be no reduction in controllers’ capacity or in the number of staff, that would reassure them that they can fulfil the overview role properly.

Mr. Sutcliffe: My hon. Friend is asking me to come to a conclusion without the investigation having taken place. I ask him to let me do the investigation first; I will then get in touch with him about the conclusion. However, the situation that he describes is not the intention.

We believe that adequate and appropriate safeguards to all these powers will be provided by existing secondary legislation—prison rules—by a contractual requirement from the public sector to follow current detailed operating systems, by monitoring by the controller and the independent monitoring board, and by an avenue of complaint to the independent prisons and probation ombudsman. Given those undertakings and in the light of the investigation to which I referred, I hope that my hon. Friend will withdraw his amendment. As I said, I will get back to him about the issues that he raised.

John McDonnell: These are key issues and they have caused concern among prison governors and controllers. I would welcome the opportunity to meet the Minister, along with representatives of the Prison Governors Association, to discuss them before the Bill goes to the other place.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am happy to do that—and to discuss why the Prison Governors Association will not allow private sector directors to become members of it. I hope that my hon. Friend will therefore withdraw his amendment.

John McDonnell: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Schedule 3

Minor and consequential amendments

Mr. Sutcliffe: I beg to move amendment No. 16, in page 32, line 9, after ‘2000)’, insert ‘in which’.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment No. 17.

Mr. Sutcliffe: These are purely technical amendments which are necessary to correct drafting errors. The bodies concerned are being consulted.

Amendment agreed to.

Schedule 5


Amendment made: No. 17, in page 35, line 34, column 2, after ‘paragraph 4,’, insert

‘the word “and” at the end of the definition of “escort arrangements” and’.— [Mr. Sutcliffe.]

Order for Third Reading read.

5.59 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (John Reid): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

We have had a productive and useful debate this afternoon on Report. Despite my inability to attend all of the debate, I can assure the House that I was listening to it intently during discussions with many deeply interested Members from both sides of the House. I thank everyone who has contributed in the Chamber today and on previous occasions, and those who have contributed outside the Chamber in discussions with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), and me.

The contributors and the contributions have significantly improved the Bill in several areas, some of which I will deal with tonight. However, there are also several issues to which we will wish to return in the other place.

Over the past few weeks, my hon. Friend the Minister and I have met a range of parliamentary colleagues, prison and probation staff and those who assist the service, in addition to representatives of the voluntary, private and charitable sectors and the Local Government Association. Considerable consultation has occurred even as the Bill has gone through the House and I know that some of my right hon. and hon. Friends have had personal experience of that. We have listened carefully, as we are duty bound to listen on any occasion, but especially when we are dealing with such serious issues with such potentially serious consequences. In addition, we have studied the many helpful amendments that have been tabled. I wish to summarise how we have responded to those concerns and how we will continue to work to improve the Bill as it continues its passage. Before I do so, I wish to make a few general remarks about the underlying principles behind the legislation for the benefit of colleagues and for the avoidance of doubt.

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