Patrick Hall: On Report and Third Readingperhaps a little late in the daythe Government began to listen, thanks to the personal interest that the then Home Secretary took in the matters that we are considering. Significant movement occurred, albeit somewhat late in the day, on contestability.
The Government made a commitment to exclude the core probation services for three years from contestability, which covers report writing, supervision of serious offenders and breached proceedings. We were promised that best value would be adopted as the test of whether a contested service would be successful. The dogmatic adherence to a target budget percentage method of allocating moneythat is, outsourcing 5, 10 or 20 per cent.was abandoned. We were also promised that any changes to those matters in three or more years would be based on evidence of what was happening on the ground. The then Home Secretary undertook to ensure that the Government would establish a mechanism to learn what was happening on the ground so that future decisions would be based on evidence.
As my right hon. Friend the Minister said, the other place has made welcome movement, some of which the Government will accept. Improvements have therefore been made there. Today the Minister put it on record that in practice, commissioning probation services will take place not only from a centrally driven, Secretary of State position or nationally, but regionallyas knew earlierand, most significantly, locally. That means probation boards and trusts. That tackles a concern that has been expressed not only by hon. Members but by people who work in the probation services throughout the countrycertainly in Bedfordshire, where I have listened to people.
It is vital to keep as much commissioning as is appropriate local. That is especially important in the context of a revived local area agreement mechanism, which the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill introduces. Under earlier proposals in the Bill that we are considering, the chief probation officer would have been the only statutory partner in the local area agreement who was unable to agree to the delivery of services that the local area agreement partners wanted. Under those proposals, the chief probation officer was not in command of a budget. However, now that my colleagues in the Government have made an important clarification, the chief probation officer can say that the probation trust or board will contributeincluding resources, when necessaryto the local area agreement. That is a significant improvement.
Mr. David Anderson: My hon. Friend mentioned resources as well as the power to commission. We must have the financial resources. It is clear from a recent report from the chief inspector of probation that resources are not keeping pace with demand. Does my hon. Friend believe that that needs to be sorted out before we move forward?
That would be helpful. As my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) said, we would like more of an incremental approach to
the way in which those matters evolve. The comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) would fit in with that.
Local knowledge is important. When people know each other and have built up professional relationships of trust over several years, they can fine-tune the services that they agree to provide, often for one or two individuals. That may not appear significant on a national scale, but it makes a difference to our constituents. As we all know, much of the crime that takes place in this country is perpetrated by a handful of individuals, who are known to the authorities. It is a handful of people who need particular attention. We therefore have to work with those in a local area who deal with them. That is an important point, which the Government have rightly agreed to secure.
Securing the continuation of that will make all the difference to improving offender management. However, I have taken some time and trouble to listen to people working in the probation service in Bedfordshire on the issue, and I have not met anyone who is trying to defend something without any change, or who does not concede that improvements are needed. Indeed, many are committed to continuing to make improvements. However, they saw that that process would be blocked if commissioning at a local level were no longer to take place, because neither the Secretary of State nor the regional offender manager is in a position to have that local knowledge. I therefore sincerely welcome the words, carefully used, of my right hon. Friend the Minister in opening this debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow said that he would certainly not vote against the Governments position, but I urge him to vote for it, because we have seen a significant improvement, which is about the best we are going to get. The alternative position, put forward in the Lordsmainly by the Conservatives, but it was perhaps supported by some otherswould be to exclude the possibility of regional and national commissioning. That is a dogmatic approach. Not everything needed to improve offender management can be delivered only at local level, even if, in my view, much or most of it can. We need to make the best use of the national expertise, often specialist, which is available by definition on a national and possibly regional basis.
Mr. Grogan: Does my hon. Friend not agree that it would be so much better, with the talent that is available, if all the marvellous suggestions that the Government have made could be included in the Bill? Then everyone would be clear. If those suggestions are not included, is there not a danger that the Secretary of State will ultimately be responsible for all commissioning under the Bill, and that a future Secretary of State for Justice might not be nearly as well intentioned and reasonable as the current holder of that position?
I agree with much of what my hon. Friend has just said, especially as he is currently in such close proximity to the Secretary of State. I asked earlier about including some of those matters in the Bill, and in particular the structure of national, regional and local commissioning. We had an answer, on which I
might like to see some movement, but what is important, and what my hon. Friend should not forget, is that what a Secretary of State or a Minister says on the record in this House is very significant indeed.
Mr. Garnier: I am sure that what the hon. Gentleman says is right. Indeed, nowadays the courts can read what a Minister says, in doing their best to construe an Act of Parliament. He will remember, I hope, that about an hour and a half or so ago we were talking about the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill. The issue was whether the Government should include in that Bill the period in which the Prison Service and the police should be brought within the corporate manslaughter regime. The Government seemed to be hugely reluctant to do that. Unless such matters are in that Bill, there will always be a good reason not to do something. I earnestly urge the hon. Gentleman, with the greatest of diffidence, to apply his mind to his experience of what this Governmentand indeed all Governmentsdo unless they are required to do something by the law of the land.
Patrick Hall: I am interested in what the hon. and learned Gentleman says, but in practice, how offender management will be delivered at the local level is so detailed and often so complex that it will be practically impossible for the Secretary of State to take over all those functions. In practice, we shall see the development of commissioning at national, regional and local levels, with the bulk of it at a local level. Yes, in theory, and perhaps in practice, I would prefer to see some words in the Bill to underpin that. However, what my right hon. Friend the Minister has said amounts to the same thing. He could not have stood before the House and made those comments unless the Government were completely committed to that approach. Frankly, I do not see any Government being able to deliver offender management and a good probation service unless much of the work is carried out at a local level. We are dealing with the practical realities of how legislation is dealt with in both Houses of Parliament.
For those reasons, I urge my hon. Friends who are considering abstaining to demonstrate their support for how the Government have listened and moved on these issues. It is also important to send a signal to the other place by supporting the Governments position this afternoon.
Mr. Hanson: I thank my hon. Friends, and Opposition Members, for the constructive tone of this afternoons debate. First, I would like to say to the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) and the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) that the debate goes to the heart of how we see the new probation service progressing. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough believes that it will concentrate power in the hands of the Secretary of State, but I believe that it will share power between the Secretary of State, regional offender managers and local probation trusts. I can give him the assurance, which I hope will help him to join us in the Lobby this evening, that it will be for the lead provider to decidebased on local knowledge at the local levelwhat commissioning is necessary and what form it will take.
Certainly, the Secretary of State will need to commission some things and regional offender managers will need to commission other things at regional level. I referred in my opening remarks to the efficient scale of services at regional and national levels. As I say, certain things will need to be commissioned at those levels, but other areas of work could be undertaken at the local level. It is important to get the balance right, but it is certainly our intention that the local lead provider should undertake the relevant commissioning. That is the difference between the hon. and learned Member for Harborough and myself, and between the hon. Member for Taunton and myself, but I hope that we will not need to divide the House on that basis.
My hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and for Bedford (Patrick Hall) made a number of important points. I am very pleased that they have accepted the spirit of what I said in my opening remarks. I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow says about building my remarks and their context properly into the Bill. I will look further into the possibility of doing that, but I need to reflect in greater detail. I have tried to assure my hon. Friend that the approach of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and myselfwhat we have said both publicly and privately, in writing to my hon. Friendprovides the opportunity for us to reflect seriously about doing that. I will definitely look further into it.
Mr. Hanson: The hon. and learned Gentleman will know that if, as I expect, the House rejects the Lords amendments today, they will go back to another place. Another place will have to reconsider them shortly. I am not a business manager, but I am sure that that will be done shortly. I will have further discussions with my right hon. Friend and parliamentary counsel about these serious matters. We need to get this right; it is not a matter of simply expressing an aspiration. Parliamentary counsel put legislative intention into effect. My right hon. Friend and I will give further consideration to the possibility of looking further into these matters and putting them on the face of the Bill.
I hope that after that assurance, my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow and for Bedford will be able to help the Government by supporting us in the Lobby and rejecting the amendments. As I said in my opening remarks, whether the amendments come from the Conservatives or have cross-party support, they will damage the principles of the Bill. Those principles are to improve the level of probation services, to make a difference on the ground, to prevent reoffending and to ensure that we build a better society by helping people who have been offenders. We need not just to help probation boards or trusts in the future, but to involve the voluntary sector in providing effective services.