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28 Feb 2007 : Column 1018

For the avoidance of all doubt, I wish to make it clear that this Bill is about supplementing the probation service, to reduce reoffending and to protect the public. Its primary purpose in practical terms is to protect those who send us to this House by reducing, through rehabilitation, supervision and better management, the reoffending that so often afflicts our society with individual and, sometimes, collective tragedy. It is not about privatising the probation service.

The public sector already has, and will continue to have, a key role to play in the management and rehabilitation of offenders. To illustrate our commitment to that, I merely point not to our words, but to our practice over the past few years. The Government have invested massively in the public sector probation services. Since 1997, overall staff numbers in the probation service, which some hon. Members mentioned earlier, have not reduced: they have gone up by no less than 50 per cent. or 7,000 more staff. Public probation service funding has also increased by 40 per cent. in the past five years alone. We have shown a sustained commitment to the public sector and we will maintain that sustained commitment to our probation services.

Moreover, the increased inputs that I have described—in resources, staffing and new methodology—have been converted into improvements in the treatment of offenders. This year, the number of offenders being taught basic skills is four times what it was only four years ago, while the number of offenders subject to accredited offending programmes is five times what it was five years ago. That shows that there has been a vast improvement in the numbers of people receiving assistance.

For instance, funding for prison drug treatment has risen since 1997 by 973 per cent.—that is, a rise of almost 1,000 per cent. in the money available for treatment for drugs-related offenders. Yet, even so, the reoffending rate has remained stubbornly high, and that is one of the reasons why we are discussing these matters this evening.

We can argue about the exact details of reoffending rates for different categories of offenders, but we all know that the rate has remained high in spite of all our efforts. I want to try to build on the investment that has been made already by enabling specialist providers in the voluntary, charitable and private sectors to supplement—not supplant—the public sector, where appropriate. I want to harness all the available energies in the reduction of reoffending, and that is the first point that I want to make.

My second point follows on from that, and has to do with my overriding concern to provide public protection and offender rehabilitation. Both those priorities are at the heart of the Bill—and as a result much of the Bill is not contentious—but they involve huge challenges that are too intractable for any one sector to handle alone.

We need to open up the reservoir of potential assistance for offenders so that all providers—be they public, voluntary, charitable or in the private sector—can play to their strengths. We will not make a real impact in reducing offending if we cannot harness the specialist skills and resources of organisations familiar to, and respected by, Members of this House. They
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include organisations such as the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, Turning Point, Rainer, Crime Concern, and the St. Giles Trust. The latter organisation, which I visited last Saturday, helps offenders by providing employment opportunities: only people who have been down a hole can help others get out.

We want to use all the specialist skills that are available to complement the work done by the public sector. If they are given the chance, organisations such as the ones to which I have referred have a huge amount to contribute, and all of them back the Bill. They might not agree with its every aspect, but they welcome the core approach on which it is based, and the advances that its formulation will make possible. They do not merely acquiesce in our proposals; rather, they have expressed their support both publicly and in private.

I turn now to the question of targets—a matter that has been raised constantly both with me and with my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South. People are very concerned, but we already have targets determining how much work must be contracted out of the public sector. In other words, they determine the outcome for services that must be put into the non-public sector by the probation board. In future, we shall abolish the existing targets and replace them with an entirely different type of aspiration. In future, the aspirations—the targets—will not be based on the a priori assumption that there is a level of non-public sector work that must be carried out, whether or not it gives best value or is from the best provider. That would be a dogmatic approach that could unjustifiably force work out of the public sector. No a priori assumptions will be made under our approach.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

John Reid: Certainly, when I have finished this section of my speech.

Let me make it clear: if a public sector provider is good enough, even outwith time scale or theme, or the assurances about ring-fenced areas that I shall give, it will have as much chance as anyone else to win the work—some would say a better chance, given the history of some providers’ involvement and experience. Our aim is simply to ensure that the best provider delivers best value for the taxpayer. That is our purpose.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): As my right hon. Friend knows, I have raised this issue with him so I am heartened by his comments. He seems to be saying that probation trusts will be required, for a certain percentage of their non-core work, to seek the provider who is most suitable and can deliver best value, and that provider could be in the public, private or voluntary sector. The process would be akin to the best value procedure familiar to many of us in local government and which is generally supported.

John Reid: That is precisely what I am saying. Indeed, I would go a little further. Although we have not yet worked out the exact detail as to how that aim
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might be attained we would obviously look at where best value is already pursued and is a central objective of the process—for instance, in local government. We will study those schemes, to find out whether we can learn from them and incorporate those lessons.

Patrick Hall rose—

John Reid: I shall give way first to the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), whom I discourteously forgot, and then to my hon. Friend.

John Bercow: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is difficult effectively to educate or train people who cannot communicate? If he agrees with that proposition how does he intend to address the problem?

John Reid: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman’s proposition. May I tell him a little anecdote in response? I mentioned earlier that last Saturday morning I visited a voluntary group in London made up of previous offenders who help offenders. They paid me the compliment of telling me that I was not as starchy as they had anticipated—I think it was a compliment. As I was talking to them I noticed pictures on the walls of faces that I recognised, but I could not see the writing underneath. When I looked more closely, I saw that one of the pictures was of Einstein and another was of Churchill and that the word I could not read was “dyslexia”. That group had realised that central to many of the difficulties in rehabilitating offenders was not just lack of education but problems in acquiring it.

One of the reasons why I want more prison places is based not on the assumption that we can build our way out of difficulties by constantly building more places but on the need to create time and physical space to increase further the education carried out in prisons. If rehabilitation is not carried out, the reoffending will not drop, and if the reoffending will not drop, the public will be no safer than they were in the first place. I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman says.

Patrick Hall: I would like to say how much I welcome—and how much many others inside and outside the House will welcome—the clarity that the Secretary of State has brought to the issue of competitions for service provision, particularly making it clear that they will include the public sector. The outcome could mean the public sector winning some of these contracts. My right hon. Friend has also stressed at least the principle of best value—rather than the lowest or the cheapest—as the underlying methodology by which tenders will be judged. I would be interested to know when he will be able to elaborate on the best value system that may be adopted.

John Reid: I trust that we will be able to provide more detail about how we would apply those principles in practice during the course of proceedings, perhaps in the other place. It is certainly our intention that any target, aspiration, aim or formulation of a figure will relate to the amount of service that might be scrutinised in order to get best value; the figure is not a determination of how much must end up in the private, charitable, voluntary—or, for that matter, public—
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sector. I make that plain. That is in addition to some guarantees that I will provide later on about some of the more serious elements of offender management. That will mean that, for a prolonged period, that area will not even go through that scrutiny, because I want to proceed cautiously.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: Which elements of the contract will be regarded as commercially confidential? As my friend knows, in the health service, where the private sector is being brought in, many contracts are commercially confidential.

John Reid: I think that the Under-Secretary has already responded to my hon. Friend on that matter. In so far as it is possible, we make these things as public and as transparent as possible. When we have to choose between A and B rather than simply allocate to A, it is important to have a degree of scrutiny and transparency that did not exist hitherto. On the specific detail of particular contracts and services, I cannot dictate from the Dispatch Box today, but I will undertake to write to my hon. Friend on this matter, if he will allow me.

I would like to make some progress. As I was saying, we will look at the principles and how to apply them in attaining best value. As to improvements to the Bill, I would like to mention one or two key undertakings—resulting directly from discussions with my right hon. and hon. Friends—that we have given since Second Reading. I hope that my hon. Friends will feel that they address their very real concerns—I do not doubt for a moment that those concerns are real.

The first undertaking relates to local accountability. We have listened carefully to views expressed on both sides of the House and put forward by organisations such as the Local Government Association. I want to emphasise that we are as keen—and, personally, I am as keen—as everyone else to ensure that local probation trusts are accountable to local people and that whatever happens in the locality, we do not have the imposition of an external group of professionals who happen to come along. I want truly to get some form of local representation built into the probation trust and I firmly believe that the Bill will, together with related reforms, increase not reduce that accountability. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has offered some important new commitments.

Frank Cook (Stockton, North) (Lab): The House knows that I am a Teesside MP, and I am concerned about the impact of the measures on that area. Is my right hon. Friend saying that a degree of autonomy will be afforded to the Teesside probation service to look after aspects of its own behaviour?

John Reid: I certainly hope so. Although there is a regional commissioner, I hope that we can lock in the guarantee of accountability below the regional level—not just in Teesside, but further down the geographic scale. Let me tell my hon. Friend about one or two of the things that we have agreed to do since our previous deliberations on the Bill.

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First, there will be a duty on probation boards to co-operate and share data with local authorities, so local accountability representation will be locked into the data sharing. Secondly, there will be statutory provision for probation trust boards to include councillor representatives. I understand that, given those and other assurances, the Local Government Association is now happy that the Bill addresses its concerns about local accountability.

I have also written to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) to say that we will look sympathetically at some of his proposals, including the amendments that would require probation trusts to publish annual plans and that would require the Secretary of State to consult local trusts about national and regional offender management plans.

Judy Mallaber: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

John Reid: If my hon. Friend will let me go a little further, I will certainly give way to her in a moment.

After discussing that matter and similar subjects with colleagues, I should like to say something about the importance of local representation and identity, not just accountability, on trust boards. That issue was raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Stockton, North (Frank Cook), for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden), for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) and for Bedford (Patrick Hall). I agree with them; I would expect board chairs to be drawn largely from local areas, and we would be happy to make that clear in the guidance that will follow on from the legislation.

A number of colleagues have also raised the importance of local area agreements, which have already been discussed in the context of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill. They are important because they place obligations on a range of partners, including probation boards, to co-operate with local authorities in the preparation of local area agreements beneath regional level. I can confirm that this duty will also apply to probation trusts. Going one final step, I also want to consider how regional commissioners should be involved in local area agreements. At the moment, local probation boards participate in the local area agreement, but I want to ensure that the regional commissioner is also involved.

Judy Mallaber: Following directly from my right hon. Friend’s last point, does he accept the concerns of a number of us about the accountability of regional commissioners to local areas? What guarantee can he give that regional commissioners will not be able to ride roughshod over local area agreements, and that the decisions taken locally between local agencies, the probation board and all others involved will be regarded as the main source for determining what is needed in each area?

John Reid: I recognise my hon. Friend’s concerns, and I hope that what I have said tonight illustrates not only that but my attempt to address some of them. I have said that we are going to go further than just ensuring that the local probation trust inherits the
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obligations of the present probation boards as part of the local area agreement. We will consider how the regional commissioner is to be involved in the local area agreements, precisely because that is such an important factor. At the end, there will be a double lock of accountability because the commissioner will be involved in the local area agreement, and, through the Secretary of State, any actions arising from that may be subject to the scrutiny of the House as well. It is precisely because those matters were raised by my hon. Friends that I have tried to address them in the points that I have made.

Mr. Gerrard: May I pursue the question of the local area agreements and the trusts? In the structure that is being proposed in the Bill, the Secretary of State or perhaps, in practice, the regional offender manager, will take on the role of the commissioner, whereas the trusts will become the contractors and the providers of the service. I have never come across a commissioner-contractor arrangement before where discussions go on with the contractor about what the levels of service will be. The structure that he is trying to describe to us is getting very confusing.

John Reid: No, I think that it is my hon. Friend who is becoming confused. I am not suggesting that the regional commissioner would sit on the probation trust; I am suggesting that the regional commissioner should have an involvement in the local area agreement in some way. The local area agreement involves a whole host of partners who come together. At the moment, one of those partners is the present probation board, which is both a commissioner and a provider. That will change and the commissioner element of that will go to the regional commissioner. I am saying that at present there is no requirement for him or her to relate to the local area agreement. I am going to consider how to make that some form of relationship. There is no confusion or contradiction. That follows on from the commissioning role of the previous probation board.

Before I conclude, I turn to the second great issue.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Will the Home Secretary give way?

John Reid: I have to make some progress, if my hon. Friend will allow me. If time permits, I will come back to him.

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