Firsteverybody will obviously share this objectivewe wish to have legislation that reduces the reoffending rate and that is able to deal effectively with the problems that affect all our constituents. To that end, it is important that Ministers properly digest all the relevant reports, that we take stock of informed contributions to the debate, and that we try to make the Government and all their agencies work as effectively as possible to try to deal with this significant problem. Apart from the desire to avoid inconvenience, I cannot
see why Ministers would deeply object to trying to allow and accommodate serious attempts to improve efforts to reduce reoffending rates.
The second, related, objective of this place is to try to make sure that the legislation that we pass is effective and meets its own objectives. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) touched on the subject a moment ago. We have had several consultation papers on the subject and a number of attempts to restructure probation services. In fact, we have had so many changes that, when the Bill had its Second Reading in this House in December, it was sponsored by a completely different Department from the Department that now seeks to conclude the deliberations. We can say with some confidence that this is not a settled area of Government policy.
Given that that is the case, it seems reasonable that proper reflection should take place to make sure that the legislation is effective, that reoffending rates are tackled in the best way possible, and that the Secretary of State himself is held fully accountable. For all those reasons, my party is minded to reject the Governments position on this group of amendments and to support the hon. and learned Gentleman when he seeks to test the opinion of the House.
Mr. Hanson: With the leave of the House, I shall comment on the assertions made by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) on the performance of the National Offender Management Service. He mentioned comments that I made when I visited Leicester race course in his constituency. On that occasion, NOMS gave me a warm welcome, and in the years in which the service has been operational, there has been significant improvement to performance. Let me give him a couple of figures to ponder while he reflects on the progress of the Bill.
In 2005-06, the target was for 40,000 offenders to take part in the basic skills programme, and 44,972 offenders started the programme. The target for key work skills awards was 120,000 people, and 186,000 people achieved those awards. The target for enhanced community punishment unpaid work completion was 50,000, and over 51,000 individuals completed unpaid work. I am proud of the fact that the offender management service is delivering services, both in prison and in the community, and that it is achieving some of the targets that we have set, but we are not complacent, as was shown in our debate on the previous group of amendments. We want improvements, and we want to make sure that there are drivers to help underperforming probation services to improve.
The hon. and learned Member for Harborough and the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) seemed to suggest that the Government had been in a mad rush to get the legislation through the House, but that mad rush goes back to my noble Friend Lord Carters report in 2003, some four years ago. The amendments before us ask us to reconsider what Lord Carter said in 2003, and the issues considered in the consultation in 2005. Essentially, it asks us to revisit the Bills progress through this place and the other place over that period, and to revisit our debates to date, just in case the Government decide that what they have sought to do so far is wrong and not applicable.
The hon. and learned Member for Harborough will be aware that the deadline for expressing interest in forming part of the initial wave of probation trusts has passed. Twenty-two of the 35 probation boards eligiblenearly two thirds of themexpressed an interest in becoming probation trusts in the first wave. The probation boards that have expressed an interest in becoming trusts, including in his area of Leicestershire, would not welcome a further delay to the consideration of that policy objective. They have expressed an interest, and they want to consider going on to the next stage, and we are now progressing with that stage in depth. We have had discussions and there has been progress; the Government have not rushed the proposals. The Lords amendments seek to delay still further the impact of the legislation.
Mr. Garnier: I agree that the gap between 2000 and 2007 cannot be described as a short period, but of course we are not talking about a continuum. There has been a number of reviews, and a number of proposals put forward, and we are now dealing with the third reorganisation of the probation service in that relatively short period. It is no good saying, Weve been thinking about the subject for some time, so the process cant be described as a rush. If we examine and analyse what has happened in those seven years, we can see that the thinking process behind the Governments proposals has been, shall we say, a little disorganised. That is the complaint, and that is why it is so important that there be a delay period that allows the Government time to see how the measures will work in practice, before they bring the Bill into full effect.
Mr. Hanson: I accept what the hon. and learned Gentleman says, but I am not convinced that further delay to the process and further consideration would be valuable. My colleagues in NOMS and I will obviously take a keen interest in the roll-out of the waves of trust applications. We will take a keen interest in the development of NOMS at probation trust/board level, and we will monitor it carefully as a matter of course. I do not believe that the further delay proposed in the amendment would be of great assistance to the process, or that the super-affirmative procedure would add anything to parliamentary scrutiny that the affirmative procedure proposed in the Bill will not add. For those reasons, I regret that I must disappoint the hon. and learned Gentleman, much as I enjoyed visiting his constituency to discuss matters with his constituents. I urge the House to reject the amendment.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We are considering Lords amendment No. 11 and the motion to disagree thereto. With this, we may discuss Government amendment (a) in lieu thereof. However, we do not move it at this stage.
Members of another place expressed genuine anxiety about the risk of conflicts of interest if one organisation proposed and provided outcomes for offenders. They feared that advice might be skewed towards the outcomes that the organisation provided. Another place amended the Bill to require individual providers of probation services and their officers to ensure that their advice to courts and the Parole Board did not give rise to any conflict of interest.
I have carefully considered the points that were raised in another place together with concerns that were expressed here earlier. I now believe that it would be helpful to deal with the matter on the face of the Bill. I have a small quibble with the Lords amendment because it places a duty on individual providers and officers, whereas we believe that it would be appropriate to give the duty to the Secretary of State, who is better placed to take the appropriate steps to ensure that the conflict of interest does not arise.
I am grateful for the assistance of the other place in making the improvement and I hope that Government amendment (a) will help. I believe that we have tackled the spirit of the other places concerns. I commend amendment (a) to hon. Members.
The debate is less contentious that those that we have held so far. I am grateful to the Minister for accepting the thrust of the arguments in the other place and those that were drawn to his predecessors attention in Committee. As a Member of Parliament and having declared my interest as a recorder, I raised our concerns about the conflict of interest that might arise if a provider of a probation service had an interest in the recommendation that he
or his organisation made to the sentencing courtbe it the Crown court or a magistrates court. Clearly, some progress has been made, thanks to discussions in another place on conflict of interest.
I should like the Minister to explain in greater detail the difference between Government amendment (a) and the Lords amendment. They are similar in intention but there are significant differences of detail. The Lords amendment states:
In carrying out their functions under this Part, and in particular in providing any assistance to the courts and to the Parole Board for England and Wales, providers of probation services and their officers shall ensure that such assistance does not give rise to any conflict of interest.
Let us leave aside for the moment the argument about whether the Secretary of State or the provider of probation services is the appropriate person to fulfil the requirement. If I got into that, I would repeat the arguments about the top-down delivery of probation services and so on, and I do not want to do that. However, there is a difference between whoever keeps an eye on the risk of conflict ensuring that it does not occur and hisas is suggested in Government amendment (a)having
regard to the need to take reasonable steps to avoid
conflict. That is a very long-winded way of saying, well do our best. I prefer the Secretary of State to be placed under an obligation that he should ensure that there is, so far as practicable, no risk of a conflict. The issue might have to go back to the other place. If so, between now and then, I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman consider the difference between ensure and
have regard to the need to take reasonable steps to avoid (so far as practicable).
The issue is not a matter of semantics; there is a real difference between the two proposals as drafted. I urge the Minister to do something about that if he can. The Government amendment in lieu refers to the necessity to
take reasonable steps to avoid (so far as practicable) the risk that...the provision, in pursuance of the arrangements, of assistance to a court or to the Parole Board.