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5.15 pm

The Minister must understand that there is a need for, and a genuine purpose in having, commissioning at a local level. For goodness’ sake, most crime is committed locally. Yes, I fully understand that there is a problem with international, cross-border and cross-regional crime. However, most of the work that is done in the Crown courts—I declare an interest as a Crown court recorder who occasionally has to read probation officers’ pre-sentencing reports and has to seek the advice of such people when considering sentences—and certainly most of the work that is done in the magistrates courts is locally derived.

It therefore seems to us that the best response to local crime, in terms of community sentences and what is required in the supervision of offenders—both offenders on community sentences and those who have been released from custody—is one that is derived locally. The local judiciary, local councillors, the local magistracy, local probation officers and staff, and all the other interlinking agencies, such as social services, education authorities and others—all of whom have a common interest in reducing offending in the local area and supervising offenders in the most effective way—are the best reservoir of information and knowledge about how to organise things. No matter how good the motives of the Secretary of State or the chief executive of the National Offender Management Service and her regional offender managers, that is putting the cart before the horse. I urge the Government to think carefully about how they wish to take this matter forward.

If one reads the letter sent by the Secretary of State for Justice to me and no doubt others in the House, one can see evidence of the constant desire to pull things back into Whitehall and to control. I am sure that the Minister will have cast an eye over the letter before it was sent out from his Ministry. The Secretary of State writes:

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That is not controversial. The letter continues:

So even in the third paragraph of the letter, we can see the direction of travel.

The letter continues:

So we are going to have members of ACEVO and the CBI coming to deals with the ROM about how best to carve up the national cake. The matter will be dealt with at a regional or national level and any crumbs that fall off the edge of the regional or national table and which ACEVO or the CBI do not want will be allowed to be picked up by the smaller fry, who will be permitted to have their share.

The letter goes on:

I pause there to comment that the person who is going to decide who is best placed to deliver is not somebody who is based locally, but the Secretary of State, via his subordinates. He will look from on high with his telescope at the worker bees getting on with such work as he condescends to give them, whereas I would rather the worker bees contracted directly locally, taking into account what is relevant and works in particular constituencies.

The letter continues:

Hon. Members can believe that if they will. Later on in the letter, the Secretary of State mentions accountability and local links, and says that he wants

Well, guess where those organisations will come from. The letter continues:

this is an interesting point—

Guess who will decide when it is practicable for a local authority representative to become involved: it will be the regional offender managers, the chief executive officer of the National Offender Management Service, the Secretary of State, or even the Minister. We can see that the whole philosophy behind the Secretary of
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State’s argument is to pretend to give with one hand, but actually to control and to retain with both hands, so I look on what the Government propose with the greatest scepticism.

Owing to time constraints, I will not argue in support of the points that Members in the other place made in favour of their amendments, which I seek to retain in the Bill. Those of us who are interested in the subject will have read with care the arguments of my noble Friend Baroness Anelay, the noble Lord Ramsbotham, and Liberal Democrat, Labour and Cross-Bench Members in the other place in support of the arrangements that I wish to see retained in the Bill. The Minister will have studied them, but clearly he was not persuaded by them. However, I urge hon. Members to be persuaded by them, first, because those arrangements are right; secondly, because they will work better; and, thirdly, because, ironically, I suspect that they fit better with the ideas and philosophies of the Labour party. They would enable us to do better what the Attorney-General asked us to do: to improve the supervision of offenders, and better to protect victims. With those words, I urge the House to sustain the amendments introduced in the other place, which come under the heading of commissioning by probation boards and probation trusts.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): I want to speak to Lords amendment No. 6, on the key issue of who does the commissioning, and at what level commissioning takes place. Throughout our consideration of the Bill, I have been concerned to ensure that we do not destroy the good work done by the probation service and the probation boards. The key probation tasks should still be carried out locally, and should be determined at that level through local partnerships. In the early part of our debates on the Bill, much of the focus was on the issue of contestability and where that was taking us. Some of my colleagues on the Labour Benches and I were extremely concerned that there appeared to be an agenda of privatisation which was driving the Bill.

In addition, there is the idea of allowing much more commissioning that involves the voluntary sector. I want to make it clear—I have had to make it clear several times—that I do not oppose the involvement of the voluntary sector in probation work, where appropriate, but when people pray in aid bodies such as the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations and the CBI we have to take it with a pinch of salt. The issue is not just one of convenience, which the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) talked about; a not-for-profit organisation is not above empire building, and I am sure that we have all seen plenty of examples of that. Organisations do not approach the issue as outsiders with a neutral, objective point of view. They have considerable vested interests in what happens—a financial interest if it is a private company, or empire building in the case of a voluntary organisation.

I accept that, as the Minister said, some commissioning is best done at national or regional level. I see examples where that is clearly the case, such as hostel provision, which is performed at a national level now. If the hostel is to accommodate sex offenders, it should not be in the locality where the sex offenders come from and where they may bump into their victims in the street. I can see other examples where economies of scale suggest commissioning at national or regional level. Electronic
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tagging is an obvious case where that makes sense, as only one or two companies provide the service. We do not want 40 probation areas to end up with 40 different contracts.

I entirely understand the Minister’s argument. I accept what has been said in the past few days. In the letter that he knows was sent by his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to me and other hon. Members, there has been a significant shift in the Government’s approach. The Secretary of State writes that he sees commissioning at national level of some very specialist low volume, high cost services—hostels would be an example—and that the regional commissioners will take strategic overviews for their areas but will work in partnership with local authorities, the National Treatment Agency, learning and skills councils and so on.

The most important thing that the Secretary of State said was about local provision. The lead provider, which in general will be the probation board or trust, certainly to start with, will act as both provider and commissioner and will concentrate on delivering the core offender management work. An equally important assurance that he gave in the letter, which my right hon. Friend the Minister repeated, was that provided its performance meets requirements, the lead provider in a probation area will be the probation trust. The lead provider will engage with other partners in the local strategic partnership to agree and implement local area agreements.

Mr. Garnier: But is the hon. Gentleman as concerned as I am that that arrangement is not on the face of the Bill?

Mr. Gerrard: I am coming to that. The letter is significant. It represents real movement from the Government’s position some time ago. On Third Reading the then Home Secretary said of local area agreements and partnerships:

Clearly, on Third Reading it was intended that the local probation trust would not be a commissioner. I accept that there has been a significant shift, and that the present Secretary of State says that the local probation trust will be both provider and commissioner and will take the lead in local commissioning.

My concern, which others raised earlier, is that that is not on the face of the Bill. Will the Minister think again? The Bill, with amendments, will obviously go back to the other place. Will he consider putting on the face of the Bill what has been said—that the lead provider and commissioner will be the local probation trust, and that the Secretary of State will, rightly, have the power to step in when what is done locally is not satisfactory? Poor quality service should not be allowed to continue, so the power for the Secretary of State to step in is needed. If that was in the Bill, someone could, if necessary, challenge that intervention, perhaps by judicial review.

5.30 pm

I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s letter, because it gets us, if not to where we want to be—there are still elements of the Bill that cause me considerable
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concern—then much closer to where we want to be than where we were, certainly on Second Reading. I am still worried about the bureaucracy that will be involved in the regional structures. I am still not clear about who makes the decisions on commissioning. The Bill originally said that it would be the Secretary of State, the amendment suggests probation trusts, and Ministers are saying that we will have to have both. In fact, there are three possibilities—the Secretary of State, the regional offender manager, or the local trust working at different levels, with the focus on the local, which is where it should be. The question is who decides what is commissioned at the regional level and at the local level. I want the emphasis to be with the local—with the probation trust—not with the regional offender manager.

Patrick Hall: My hon. Friend is talking about one of my key concerns. What we have heard from the Minister today has taken us a lot further forward. I think that the Government have now accepted that some of the very good local, finely tuned work, which often deals with only small groups of people but is none the less an essential part of effective probation and offender management, is secure and will continue. Does he agree that that is an extremely important advance?

Mr. Gerrard: That is right. It very much fits in with what was being said last week in the annual report from the chief inspector of probation services, who said that incremental improvements had been made and that we need to continue that process instead of throwing the whole structure up in the air. What Ministers have said in the last day or so is moving in the right direction. The current situation is not perfect, but there has been an important shift in what is being said, which is very different from what was said on Third Reading. I wish that we had been in the position of having this productive discussion around the time of Report and Third Reading, when we could have been much nearer to getting to where we should be.

Given what the Minister said, I am not going to oppose what the Government are doing, although that does not mean to say that I will necessarily vote for it. I hope that if this is discussed again in the other place we will get into the Bill exactly the sort of things that Ministers have been saying and that the Secretary of State said to me in his letter.

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): I do not intend to detain the House at great length, but I want to say a few words, given that we are having the crucial part of our discussion right at the beginning.

Nobody can doubt the important role played by probation services. There is a churning of people who regularly commit crimes against our constituents, and breaking that cycle is an absolutely crucial public policy objective of the Government and is in the interests of everybody in this country. I ought to say straight away that my party has no innate hostility to diversity of provision—far from it. The voluntary sector is currently involved in providing probationary services in some circumstances, but our objection to the Bill and the Government’s intentions is that we do not wish to see legislation starting from a top-down,
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prescriptive assumption that is driven by the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State will be responsible for commissioning services either directly or through his agents—the extraordinarily named regional offender managers. That gives us a sense of the tone and style of this arrangement; people with such overbearing and rather grand titles will impose their blueprint on those who serve at a more local level, which gets to the crux of our frustrations and our problem with the Government’s position.

As we are in the business of citing organisations in our support, the Probation Boards Association emphasised recently that crime is a local phenomenon with local causes and solutions. That is very much my experience. I represent a sizeable county town in the largely rural county of Somerset, and doubtless it has problems that are familiar to different communities throughout the country, but specific problems may not be replicated in quite the same way in, for example, the constituency of the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), who represents a part of our capital city.

We need probation services that are finely attuned to the individual needs and requirements of each community, and an approach driven from the top down by the Secretary of State with his regional enforcers seems unlikely to achieve that desired objective. We are looking, in microcosm, at the wider problem with the Government’s attitude to public services. Perhaps it is a hangover from the previous Prime Minister, Tony Blair—

Mr. David Anderson: Who?

Mr. Browne: It is an opportunity to say his name on the Floor of the House.

Perhaps the measure is a legacy of Tony Blair’s approach to public service reform, where the language was modernising and high on rhetoric, but in practice we often dealt with a controlled and restrictive blueprint.

Mr. Garnier: The reality of the previous Prime Minister’s Government was reflected by the fact that in the winter estimates, it became apparent that the headquarters of the National Offender Management Service was to receive £60 million to £80 million more than the entire front line of the probation service. We can see what the Government are in the business of doing. They are pulling not just power into the centre, but money with it.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful for that intervention because it further reinforces my point. In essence, the critique is this: the Government are persuaded intellectually of the need to improve public services through the devolution of power and authority, to allow a thousand flowers to bloom and to empower local communities, but they are instinctively incapable of turning such rhetoric into practice. They talk the language of freedom, but they practise the actions of control. That is our objection to the Government’s proposals, and for that reason I shall not back down, as some Labour MPs have said that they are inclined to. My party will vote to frustrate the Government’s objective.

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