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An important issue that Members raised continually and on which I am prepared to offer assurances relates to the role of the public sector in relation to offender management itself—that is, the overseeing and supervision of serious offenders. I understand the concerns of some colleagues about the pace of the reforms and I want to assure hon. Members that we will not rush this process. An important move such as this ought to be undertaken with care and caution and I have previously made it plain that it will be undertaken carefully and cautiously. I can therefore give an assurance today, building on what I said the last time I spoke on the matter at the Dispatch Box, that the core offender management tasks of the probation service—for example, offender report writing, offender supervision and breach proceedings—will remain in the public sector for the next three years. That is for at
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least the lifetime of this Parliament. I alluded to that the last time I was here and I make it plain again today. For the next three years, the core tasks of offender management will remain in the public sector.

Patrick Hall: Will my right hon. Friend take on board the issue that I raised this afternoon about the need to set up a mechanism whereby we are able to monitor and then report on what happens on the ground over the next three years so that the evidence from that can inform any future developments?

John Reid: I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said this afternoon. It is a logical follow-on from what I said earlier about the motivation being best value and best providers, not any dogmatic insistence that services should be provided in this or that sector, that decisions must be based on the evidence. What I took him to be asking in the course of the afternoon was whether we could use the period during which the management of offenders would be retained in the public sector to compile monitoring and reports that illustrate the efficacy or otherwise of the process.

That is a perfectly legitimate and intelligent thing to ask and I therefore give the undertaking that we will do that, so that, before we get to any future stage—I will mention another lock on that point—people can see the evidence about how things have been working. In short, I know that this is an area of particular concern for some colleagues and therefore I am extending the time during which this aspect will be retained in the public sector to the lifetime of this Parliament. That is what I said last time I was at the Dispatch Box and I repeat it now.

I know that there is particular concern among hon. Members about the support that the public probation service gives to courts, especially regarding the writing of reports, which is at the heart of offender management. That is an especially important and sensitive area of work that can be key to the success, or otherwise, of what follows to reduce reoffending and to protect the public. For that reason, we tabled an amendment requiring the Secretary of State to contract only with the public sector for the work that the probation service does in relation to courts. That provision could be repealed only by an order subject to the affirmative procedure that was agreed by both Houses of Parliament.

If, at some future point, any Government were to decide that the time was right to open up that area of work to non-public sector providers, they would have to make the case to Parliament, and Parliament would have the final say. In short, there is a three-year guarantee for the retention of offender management in the public sector and a double lock meaning that any movement after that will require a vote of both Houses of Parliament. I believe that those assurances are hugely significant and I hope that they will go a considerable way towards meeting the major concerns that hon. Members have expressed to me. I assure hon. Members that we have listened to their concerns and that we will continue to listen.

Mr. Drew: Will the Secretary of State give way?

John Reid: In fairness, I should give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), who tried to intervene earlier.

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Mr. Grogan: May I bring my right hon. Friend back to his comments about regional offender managers? He said that they would be involved in some way with local opinion. Does he agree that that phrase lacks his usual precision and does little to comfort those of us who fear that an awful lot of power is being placed in the hands of nine or 10 regional offender managers who will be ultimately accountable not to local opinion and local people, as is the case under the existing system, but to him?

John Reid: My hon. Friend is not being entirely fair. First, I have said that we will have elected local councillors on the probation trusts. Secondly, I have said that the trusts will be required to publish their plans. Thirdly, I have said that the regional commissioner will be required to consult the trusts. Fourthly, I am now saying that I will consider ways of ensuring that the regional commissioner relates to the local area agreement. I have done that in a framework through which I am guaranteeing that offender management will stay in the public sector for three years. Even after that, a vote of both Houses of Parliament will be needed to change the situation. If that does not bring my hon. Friend comfort, I am not quite sure what will. I have listened and moved a considerable way, as many hon. Members will recognise. I am as determined as anyone else in the House to get this right, otherwise the public will not be protected and the people who will carry the can for that will be Ministers.

I have tried to consider the views of Labour Members, and in some cases I have compromised significantly. I have done so because, in the vast majority of cases, their concerns are shaped by a commitment to this public service and public protection and underpinned by sincerity.

I now turn to the Conservative party and, especially, to the Leader of the Opposition. In November 2005, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said:

Of course, we have been told continually about the commitment of the new Conservatives to work in partnership with the voluntary sector. They make general statements about that, but we have the benefit of a special statement from the Leader of the Opposition:

He was talking about penal policy and offenders.

I understand that despite all these avowed intentions and promises, the Opposition are considering voting against the Bill tonight. That is a choice for them alone to make, but I caution them against opposition for opportunism’s sake. To vote against the Government tonight, in contradiction to everything that they have publicly declared in the past, even if they were to win, would be at best a hollow victory, since in capturing the minutes of opportunism they will have thrown away the hours of integrity, and it will be noticed by the public. It is the sustaining of principles and policy over the hours that is the true mark of leadership and
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potential Governments, not the opportunistic minutes. Even worse, and I say this to my hon. Friends as well, if they vote against the Bill tonight, abandoning all consistency and principle, grasping nothing but hollow air and opportunism, and they lose, they will then have lost twice. They will have lost their political credibility entirely; they will have lost their integrity; and they will have done it in pursuit of a cheap, opportunistic hit.

I say to my hon. Friends that the Conservatives’ predicament is always our opportunity. Members on the Labour Benches should remember that when we are voting we can not only improve offender management and the protection of our people in this country but expose the Conservative party for what it truly is—a bunch of policy-less, principle-less opportunists. I commend the Bill to the House.

6.36 pm

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): I start by agreeing with the Home Secretary on one thing. Like him, I listened to much of the debate and thought that nearly all of it was serious, principled and important, even those parts I disagreed with. The only part that I would except from that is the last two minutes of his speech. I am fascinated to be lectured by this Home Secretary on credibility.

The Government said that the aim of the Bill is to reduce reoffending. Everyone in the House, indeed everyone in the country excepting perhaps the criminal fraternity, would applaud that aim, and we certainly do. As the Home Secretary said, we specifically support the idea of more diversity of provision. The support that we gave on Second Reading was not unconditional, and we said that clearly at the time. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) said that

He went on to say:

That was very clear and very consistent. If the Home Secretary was not listening, that is his problem.

The picture that the Home Secretary paints of the progress of the Bill is hard to recognise, with the possible exception of the last 48 hours. The Opposition—both Opposition parties, it is fair to say—made every effort to secure a cross-party approach in Committee to try to achieve the best Bill possible. For example, right at the beginning we called for an evidence-taking session to get the best expert evidence on what change would really deliver practical benefits. That was under the new rules brought in by the Leader of the House. That was refused point blank by the Home Secretary. So much for consultation. But we held the session anyway.

In January the Committee heard from independent experts in the field, and the few quotes that I shall now read to the House are from the House of Commons Library note on that hearing, which I take as an
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impartial summary record. The former chief inspector of prisons, a very principled man who has stood up for his cause over time,

The former head of the Prison Service and the probation service, Martin Narey, who was prayed in aid by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), earlier,

The head of the respected home affairs think-tank Civitas

Even the Home Secretary acknowledged our collaborative approach, only this week thanking my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition for our “constructive” engagement through the Committee stage. Those were his words—a little different from the words he used tonight. However, as the Library note makes clear, the Bill was not substantively amended at all in Committee. So much for constructive engagement with the Opposition.

Although one amendment has belatedly been accepted by the Government today, that does not change the central flaw of the Bill. The Home Secretary—amazingly, in a Third Reading debate after a Committee stage and a Report stage, still proposing to amend the Bill—promised some minor changes that would not fundamentally alter the fact that the trusts, as the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) pointed out, are, in the final analysis, appointed by and accountable to the Home Secretary, not to their communities. So much for localism.

On that basis, the Home Secretary is correct: we cannot support yet another Home Office Bill. There are three principal grounds on which we shall vote against Third Reading. First, despite the Home Secretary’s claims, the Bill is about more centralised Government control over offender management. Let us be clear: over-centralisation is bad in its own right, but over-centralisation in a Department that is already in difficulty, that is struggling to cope and that may simultaneously have to cope with a massive reorganisation as the Home Office is cut in two, is a recipe for disaster—something that the present Home Secretary might recognise.

In his letter of 26 February to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the Home Secretary claimed to be championing a “more devolved approach” to the system, one that would be sensitive “to local needs”. Again, those are his words. But the head of the Probation Boards Association, whom I regard as a more credible witness, described the Bill on the “Today” programme this morning—

Mr. Mullin: The outgoing head.

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David Davis: No doubt he is outgoing, now. He said:

The Government claim that the Bill is all about contestability, opening up the provision of offender management services to the private and voluntary sectors. The Home Secretary wrote in The Daily Telegraph on Monday that

Let me be clear. We welcome wider involvement and greater competition in the delivery of those public services. We welcome the involvement of the private and voluntary sectors and the innovation that they can bring to probation services. But the Government have offered no compelling reason why we need yet another piece of legislation to increase their own self-imposed level of 3 per cent. of expenditure that is currently outsourced.

That the Bill is not necessary to achieve that was made clear by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber during this afternoon’s debate. In addition, we were told by the Probation Boards Association that the level of private and voluntary sector provision

so they halved it. It is clearly possible to double, if not treble or quadruple, the quantity of service provision from the private and voluntary sectors without any new legislation. In December, the Home Secretary told the Home Affairs Committee that the Home Office should spend

and a little less time “passing laws”. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to heed his own advice.

The second ground for opposition is that the proposals focus on yet another organisational restructuring—the third probation service reorganisation in six years. It is impossible to improve service delivery in that way. The constant bureaucratic reshuffling is—again, I quote the head of the Probation Boards Association this morning—“ridiculously expensive”. He is right. It is estimated that the provisions of the Bill will require a further 1,600 civil servants to operate—I heard the Under-Secretary set his face against that—and the Government are spending nearly £900 million on NOMS headquarters, which is £60 million more than they are spending on the front-line delivery of probation services.

The final reason why the Opposition will vote against the Bill is that, as it stands, it is a real distraction from the problems at hand. There have been 60 Home Office Bills in 10 years, during which time reoffending rates rose by 10 per cent., which is an historic increase, but the Government still have not learned one self-evident truth: they cannot legislate their law and order failings away. The reason for the soaring prison reoffending rate is the failure to retrain and rehabilitate in prison, and the reason for that is the chaos and disruption caused by the Government’s failure to provide enough prison places. The Bill will do nothing to solve that.

The reason for many of the serious crimes and even murders committed by those on parole and probation is the fact that the Government cut the number of
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face-to-face interviews before release by 90 per cent. The Bill will not solve that, and it will do nothing to stem the danger to the public that is the direct result of chronic prison overcrowding—a problem that the Government predicted, but a responsibility that they abdicated. The benefits claimed for the Bill do not, in fact, require legislation, but its harmful aspects are a direct result of it. That is why we will vote against the Bill on Third Reading, and why, when the Bill goes to the other place, we will seek to amend it drastically to remove the massive over-centralisation that it entails.

6.46 pm

Mr. Heath: I start by thanking the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), for the competent and well-humoured way in which he conducted himself on Report; that was appreciated by the whole House. Moving on to the Home Secretary’s extensive speech, which took up the majority of the time allocated for Third Reading, he painted a warm, fuzzy picture of what he believed some of his hon. Friends would like the Bill to be, and of what he believed he might persuade them that it meant. That picture bears little relation to the words in the Bill, or to its consequences if it is passed tonight.

The Home Secretary employed the common ground shared by all parties. We all want a seamless transition between prison, the probation service and, beyond that, proper rehabilitation in the community. We all want those services to be improved; that is common ground, and we do not need the Bill to achieve it. He said that he wants to supplement, rather than supplant, the probation service, but if he intends to supplement it, why did he not accept the amendments proposed by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard)? Why did he not accept that some core areas are the proper province of the probation service, but that in other areas, it would be possible to supplement what the probation service does with proper involvement of the voluntary and charity, or indeed private, sectors?

We have to take into account what we heard before today’s speech. We must hear the mood music—the famous speech at Wormwood Scrubs, and the rubbishing of much of the probation service’s work, which took place before this debate and before the introduction of the Bill. During the stages of the Bill, there has been no indication of how it will address the failings that the Home Secretary perceives in the performance of the probation service. The repeated refrain was that the Bill will engage the services of the charity and not-for-profit sectors in ways that are not possible at the moment, but it was never said what the barriers were to engaging those services under current legislation. Many of us believe that those barriers are not there. The only answer that the Minister gave, in the Bill’s earlier stages, was that the Bill would change the culture of the probation service—a proposition that I find laughable.

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