Previous Section Index Home Page

4.50 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendment No. 8 and the Government motion to disagree thereto and Government amendment (a) in lieu thereof, Lords amendment No. 9 and the Government motion to disagree, Lords amendment No. 12 and the Government motion to disagree, and Lords amendment No. 13 and the Government motion to disagree.

Mr. Hanson: May I begin by expressing the Government’s appreciation of the very careful scrutiny that the Bill received in another place? Much good work has been done and many improvements have been made, and I thank my noble Friend Baroness Scotland and colleagues in another place and my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), who is now Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, for the work that they undertook in guiding the Bill through Committee and another place. As Members will know, I took up my post eight weeks ago, but the Bill has been in existence for a considerable period, so I pay tribute to my colleagues for the work that they have done.

The concerns that hon. Members expressed on Report and Third Reading have now been addressed in another place and we have a better Bill as a result. It may be helpful to remind the House and colleagues of what the Bill will achieve and why it is so important. The statutory duty to deliver probation services lies with 42 individual probation boards, which are working to centrally-set targets and whose chief officers are directly line-managed by the director of probation in Whitehall. The arrangement was introduced after the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 was passed, and it has delivered a great deal. Some 97 per cent. of pre-sentence reports to magistrates courts are delivered within the deadline specified by the court, and there has been a considerable increase in the number of unpaid work completions—55,000 last year, against a target of 50,000, which represents an increase of over 4,000 compared with 2005-06.

We can be proud of the fact that probation workers are dedicated, are working strongly and have put into effect a number of key measures, including on unpaid work. However, the House would want me to understand the need to consolidate those gains. The task of tackling the issue of reoffending is a complex one, and we need to do the best that we can to ensure that the best available providers are engaged. To date, about 96 per cent. of services have been provided in-house by probation boards. We need to do more to involve other providers in support of the public sector, particularly, may I tell my hon. Friends, to support the work that it undertakes.
18 July 2007 : Column 352
We need, too, to move towards more outcome-focused arrangements that free providers from all sectors to innovate.

The Bill as drafted lifts from probation boards the statutory duty for making arrangements for probation services, and places it firmly on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor. It creates new public sector bodies, probation trusts, with which the Secretary of State may contract. That does not mean that my right hon. Friend will run services directly from Whitehall. What we are proposing, and what I hope the House will accept, is a coherent structure that enables services to be commissioned at an appropriate level with clear lines of accountability. Commissioning of services under the new arrangements—I hope that this will reassure all hon. Members—will take place at national, regional and local levels. That has been of concern to several of my hon. Friends, and I hope that the discussions that we have had during the passage of the Bill have helped them to understand where we are with the particular service that I am seeking to introduce.

Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has just mentioned a very significant and welcome development in the way in which the Bill is considered. Does he see any merit in including that in the Bill, so that there can be no doubt that commissioning will take place at the most appropriate level—local, regional and, if necessary, national?

Mr. Hanson rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps, having given some of the background, the Minister will now limit his remarks to the amendments under discussion.

Mr. Hanson: I will, Madam Deputy Speaker, but commissioning at national, regional and local level, to which my hon. Friend referred, is exactly what the Government are trying to achieve in the Bill, and the opposite of what the Lords amendment proposes. I can assure my hon. Friend that commissioning will take place at national, regional and local level. I say that for the simple reason that the issue is at the heart of the amendment that we are discussing.

My hon. Friend asked whether we could at some point consider including that description in the Bill. I hope he will accept the spirit in which I have spoken today, the spirit in which I have spoken in other discussions about the Bill, and indeed the spirit that contrasts so starkly with the proposal from another place for commissioning only at local level.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): I wonder whether my right hon. Friend agrees with Lord Falconer, who said about commissioning in his speech at the centenary conference of the probation service

Local commissioning would be the norm, he said.

Mr. Hanson: That goes to the heart of the amendments, which is why I have focused on it from the outset. I entirely agree with what the then Lord Chancellor said at the conference. There will be a mixture of commissioning.
18 July 2007 : Column 353
Some will be at national level, because in certain cases and with certain contracts that will be the best way of securing a strong and efficient service. There will also be a strong role for those commissioning work at regional level. As my hon. Friend surely accepts, economies of scale will sometimes be necessary, and some services will be best purchased and commissioned at that level. However, there will also be a need for local probation trusts to act not just as service deliverers but as commissioners of services from the voluntary sector, or from others, providing a proper service to help prevent reoffending at local level.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): May I press my right hon. Friend a little further on the proportions of the total probation work that he expects to be commissioned at national, local and regional level? Will more than 50 per cent. definitely be commissioned at local level?

Mr. Hanson: I cannot give my hon. Friend any assurances about what will be commissioned at national, regional or local level. What I will say is that it is—I hope—self-evident that certain services need to be provided at national level, and others at regional level. I hope and believe that a considerable amount will be provided at local level, but for reasons I think my hon. Friend will understand, I am not in a position to assure him of that today. We need to examine in detail some of the services that will be provided.

I can say today that, in the case of most services, regional commissioners will make arrangements with lead providers, who, in turn, will act as both providers and commissioners for the probation area. Provided that their performance meets the required standard, as I believe it will in most cases, the lead providers will be the probation trusts. They will concentrate on delivering core offender management work, while commissioning interventions at local level. I believe that they will welcome that, and that it will help the Bill’s passage through the House of Commons.

The Government oppose the Lords amendments because they seek to undermine the entire basis of our proposals to improve the delivery of probation services. When they were debated in another place, their supporters were unequivocal in their backing for greater involvement of providers from other sectors, particularly the voluntary sector. Speaking to the amendments on behalf of the Opposition, Lady Anelay said:

That was consistent with what the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) said when summing up for the Opposition on Third Reading. It is therefore hard for me to understand why the Opposition have tabled their amendments, as those who support them claim that the Government proposals in part 1 are centralising—but as I have explained, they are not. They allow the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor to determine what needs to be commissioned, as is his responsibility. There will therefore be clear accountability and responsibility in respect of what he at the national level asks regional commissioners to
18 July 2007 : Column 354
commission, and there will also be clarity in respect of what they in turn ask of local commissioning boards. The amendment would destroy that clear accountability and that focus in national, regional and local commissioning by removing completely the local element and not sufficiently clarifying the relationship between the Secretary of State and the local trusts.

5 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): The Minister is in danger of conflating two separate arguments and therefore of misleading himself. There is a distinction between my views on the amendments and the structure that the Bill provides and those of Labour Members such as the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard). He disapproves of the contracting-out of what has until now been a state-provided service—that is what the argument over contestability is about. On the other hand, I have no philosophical objection to contestability, but I do have an argument with the Government—with which the hon. Gentleman might agree—about the top-down micro-management of the probation services from the Secretary of State’s office via his various subordinate quango offices. So long as the Minister understands the distinction between those two, or possibly three, sets of arguments, he will not mislead himself or the House.

Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for ensuring that I do not mislead myself, but let me say that I am clear about the points I making to the House today. I am aware that my hon. Friends hold the views he has described on contracting out. I fully expect the vast majority of current probation boards—in future, probation trusts—to have sufficient quality to be able to secure services at local level and then be in a position to determine, with regional support and a national framework and direction, the services that they provide. I am also clear, however, that we will need to ensure that we raise the standards of probation trusts that do not meet the standards that we expect as, sadly, some current probation boards underperform. We must raise standards, and I have every confidence that we can do that within the framework of the public sector—with the vast majority of trusts remaining public sector-based and delivering services at the local level, and with support from regional commissioners and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

I do not support the amendments as they would remove the regional structure; it is claimed that services provided at regional level could not provide economies, and the issue of potentially underperforming probation trusts at the local level is not tackled, because no meaningful clarification is offered of the relationship between the Secretary of State and the trusts. The amendments would do a disservice to people whom all Members wish to be supported; we all want offenders in the probation service to be helped not to reoffend.

There is an honest disagreement. I hold a different view from that held in another place, and I am trying to explain it. I hope that I will secure the support not only of the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) but of my hon. Friends. The amendments sound appealing but they are not realistic, and Governments deal with reality. The proposals in part 1 of the Bill will
18 July 2007 : Column 355
enable probation services to be delivered by a range of providers, and to be tailored to local needs and set within a clear framework of accountability.

That clear and consistent approach should be contrasted with that suggested by the amendments. It is claimed that the amendments provide for local commissioning, but they do not. They would give us the worst of all worlds. They do not provide the means to ensure greater involvement for other providers and they do not provide for any meaningful accountability. Nor do they provide the means for entering into a mature dialogue when concerns about performance arise, as they will with some underperforming boards, save for the blunt instrument of making provision elsewhere. That is not a format or mechanism that my hon. Friends would support in principle.

As I have said, I am grateful for the contribution that the other place has made to the debate on this Bill. I am also grateful to my hon. Friends for their close scrutiny of some of the issues. Much progress has been made with the Bill during its passage and I hope that tonight we can make further progress with some of the amendments. As hon. Members will see with later amendments, the Government agree with some elements suggested in the other place. However, I cannot support amendment No. 6, nor can the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations or, dare I say it, the CBI. I know that that will help to drag my hon. Friends en masse into the Lobby. However, that is an important contribution, because the CBI has to work with the people in the probation service. The Local Government Association does not support the amendment either.

I hope that the lack of support from those three organisations and the consideration that we have given the Bill today will persuade the House to reject the amendment. I hope that my hon. Friends will agree that the Bill provides the possibility of determined commissioning at a national, regional and local level, in the interests of the probation service and offenders, with the objective of reducing crime.

Mr. Garnier: I agree with the Minister that the Bill was considerably improved in the other place. I agree with the Attorney-General, when she said:

I also agree with the Minister when he says that the motives of both Houses have been of the highest. Unusually for such a contentious Bill, party political argument has been mostly absent, and we have had some good arguments on it. We have had some rigorous and intellectual debates about the Bill’s motives, and I hope that will continue this afternoon.

That said, I shall now move away from that consensual spirit by telling the Minister that he should not describe the amendment as an Opposition amendment. We are seeking to defend an all-party and no-party set of amendments that were introduced in the other place. If he looks at the debate in the other place, especially on this amendment, he will find that Conservative peers—he quoted Baroness Anelay—Liberal Democrat peers, Cross-Bench peers and Labour peers went into the Lobby
18 July 2007 : Column 356
against the Government. The Minister is therefore seeking to overturn amendments that had all-party and no-party support in the other place. To reduce the argument to Government versus Opposition is to make a false point and devalue his arguments for resisting the amendments.

I would explain the essential difference between the Minister and me by saying that the Opposition do not want probation services to be micro-managed from the top down—from the office of the Secretary of State for Justice. I should note in passing that, when the Bill began its life in this House before Christmas, we were of course talking about the Home Secretary.

The hon. Members for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and for Selby (Mr. Grogan) might advance some collateral but different arguments, but we believe that, in certain circumstances, supervisory services could properly be contracted out to the third sector—charities, church groups and not-for-profit enterprises—and commercial enterprises.

Mr. Hanson: Given what the hon. and learned Gentleman has just said, why would Stephen Bubb of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations say:

Mr. Garnier: I shall deal with that question head on. It is not surprising that an organisation such as ACEVO, which represents some of the country’s biggest charitable organisations in this field—or that the CBI, which represents some of the biggest companies in the country—should prefer the convenience of bilateral relations with the Secretary of State for Justice or one of his subordinates. That subordinate could be the chief executive of the National Offender Management Service, or it could be one of her subordinates—namely, a regional offender manager who is directly responsible, up the chain of command, to the Secretary of State.

Such a system would be preferable for the organisations that I have mentioned, because they would not have to go through what they regard as the expensive administrative inconvenience of having to deal with the more than 40 probation trusts that will come into existence under this Bill, or what are now known as probation boards. I can understand that. If I ran an organisation such as Turning Point or one of the other grant farmers—and I use the expression in a descriptive rather than pejorative way—that operate in the field, I would find it altogether more convenient to deal with the smallest possible number of contracting partners.

I received a fairly apoplectic letter from Mr. Bubb during the Bill’s Report stage in this House, and a rather less apoplectic one the other day. The latter was addressed to “Dear Edward”, and it was couched in identical terms to letters that were sent to every other Member of Parliament. I suspect that each letter addressed its recipient by his or her first name, but Mr. Bubb is employed to advance ACEVO’s interests and I do not criticise him for that. However, I am employed by my constituents and the public as a whole to try to produce the best possible legislation, and to ensure that it best suits the purpose of improving the supervision of offenders and protecting victims. To be
18 July 2007 : Column 357
honest, the Minister’s arguments contain nothing that supports the contention made by the Attorney-General in the other place that the Bill is designed to achieve those aims. The Government’s objective in seeking to overturn the amendments is fairly straightforward: they want to concentrate the power of contracting into a few, centrally located hands.

I debated these matters at a meeting of the Local Government Association not long ago with the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), when he was Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Justice. He said, quite candidly, that the line of responsibility of a regional offender manager would not be to the local community, or to the local probation board or trust. Instead, the chain of command would go up the line and back to Whitehall: it used to be to Peel house and the Home Secretary, although it is now to Selbourne house and the Secretary of State for Justice. Unless the Government understand why there is so much cross-party objection to the model, the argument will go on for quite some time. It may or may not be a dialogue of the deaf.

Next Section Index Home Page