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28 Apr 2009 : Column 241WH—continued

Hon. Members will note that the Secretary of State completely evaded my question about the future of the probation office in Banbury. I do not believe that anyone could pretend that the Banbury probation office comes under the category of a “back-office function”, so imagine my surprise during the week before Easter, during the parliamentary recess, when I learned that the Thames Valley probation service had at last ‘fessed up to the fact that it intended to close the Banbury probation office and consolidate all the county’s probation services in Oxford. I wait with interest to learn how that retrograde step can conceivably be considered, using the Secretary of State’s answer to my oral question to ensure that front-line services are properly protected. The Government
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are removing front-line probation services from a large part of Oxfordshire, including from my constituency, and moving them to Oxford. This is a retrograde step on which there has been dissembling and misleading statements over a number of months.

Again, imagine my surprise when I received a letter, dated 2 April, signed jointly by the chair and chief officer of the Thames Valley probation service, which was not received in my office until the middle of the next week, giving just over a week’s notice of an invitation to meet for what it described as a

about the Thames Valley probation service’s reduced budget over the next few years and the proposed merger—as it put it—of its Oxfordshire field offices in a centralised service in Oxford. Mr. Fearn and Mr. Marshall’s letter concluded, somewhat ironically one might consider:

Immediately I saw this letter, I wrote to Mr. Fearn, the chair of the Thames Valley probation service, to say that in the more than a quarter of a century that I have been a Member of Parliament, the process that the Thames Valley probation had conducted in recent months is one of the most dismal performances by a public body that I have ever come across. The Thames Valley probation service was fully aware last November that I and others were concerned about its proposals to close the Banbury probation offices. Why did it not engage with me and other parliamentary colleagues at that time? Why, at that time, did the probation service deny that there was any proposal to close the Banbury probation office?

Throughout the time that these proposals have been actively under discussion, there has been no attempt by the probation service to discuss the downgradings and closure proposals or to engage with local MPs. I am afraid that I have to say that there has been every attempt by Ministers centrally and the Thames Valley probation service locally to deny that any such proposals were in the offing. Those working in the probation service have been put in an almost impossible position, being unable to comment publicly on matters that I know, from my discussions with them, have caused them considerable personal and professional concern. Only once the decisions are effectively irreversible does the probation service decide that it is time to brief local MPs. That is not good enough. That is not a process that enhances respect or confidence in the quality of the decision making.

In a response to my letter, Mr. Fearn, the chair of the Thames Valley probation service, replied on 13 April, saying:

That letter could only be read reasonably as seeking to indicate that this was a question not of the probation service closing its office in Banbury, but of simply moving it. The only difficulty with that approach is that on 24 April the Minister wrote to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, stating clearly and in terms that the

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That “line to take” echoed entirely a letter from Phil Wheatley, the director general of the National Offender Management Service, the week before, on 16 April, in which he said that the

Let us not have any weasel words about this. The intention is to close the Banbury probation office. In reality, I suspect that we will only see probation officers in Banbury when the north Oxfordshire magistrates court is sitting and they need to attend. Clearly, there will not be any offender management taking place in Banbury. I am sure that a large number of my constituents, including not a few magistrates, will find somewhat risible the Minister’s assurances that the

I have arranged to meet Mr. Malcolm Fearn and Gerry Marshall, the chief probation officer, at their offices in Bicester on Friday week, on 8 May, and I shall be interested to hear what they have to say. But ultimately they have to deliver cuts imposed on them by Ministers. How will centralising the probation service in a single office for the whole of Oxfordshire assist offender management in the county? What sort of criminal justice system is it that, as announced by the Secretary of State yesterday, continually increases the number of prison places but is reducing the number of probation officers? What explanation does the Minister have for the fact that the machinery of government denied for months that any such proposals existed? Lastly, what will be done to ensure that the implementation of the changes will be monitored so that the probation service and Ministers can objectively advise in due course on their impact? I look forward to the Minister’s response.

1.15 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) for securing the debate and for allowing me, perhaps in exchange for the letters that he read from, to have two minutes of valuable time. I shall keep my remarks very brief because I know that the Minister will want to reply.

The problem that I have is related to what the hon. Gentleman was discussing. It is the relocation of the proposed consolidated probation offices to a building—well, not a building, but at the moment a shell of a building—called Trajan house, in Mill street. Of course the consolidation is controversial, as we have heard. That is not my issue, but if it does not go ahead, for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman gave, there will be an effect on the amount of space needed for a consolidated office. That raises the question whether the siting issue should be re-examined.

The main problem is the placing of the centre in a residential area at the end of a residential street, which is simply not appropriate. The third aspect is that there has been no consultation. The reason given is that there are no options to consult on, which leads me to my fourth point: why are there no options? Residents and I believe that the search could have been and still needs to be wider than the area that has been looked at. No one would describe the rail station in Oxford as being at the centre of the city centre; it is very much at the western
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edge, and a much wider area should be considered. It seems to me and members of the public that the issue has been rushed. There are also process issues about when, exactly, the option was determined.

I wanted to bring the matter to the Minister’s attention so that I could alert him to the fact that when something that I would claim was similar happened in Birmingham the Justice Secretary apologised in the Birmingham Mail on 7 December, admitting “we got it wrong” after being confronted by campaigners against a Birmingham probation centre. He said:

I hope that the probation service will learn lessons. I accept that there are operational issues involved that are not for the Minister, but I think what happened shows that there are political and policy issues at stake.

There is a 1,000-name petition and I have had many letters, as, no doubt, has the Minister. The story has been in the national press and I have written to—and had replies from—the Thames Valley probation service, the National Offender Management Service and the Minister. I am grateful for the replies, which were civilised, as was the meeting that I had with the Thames Valley probation service. However, that did not solve the problem. Would the Minister be willing to meet me and local councillors—two well-regarded Labour city councillors and the last two in my constituency, who, the Minister should recognise, have an important interest in the issue—and residents? Will he meet us before any final decisions are made and leases are signed, so that we can put to him our concerns about the process and try to persuade him, and through him the probation service, to widen their search and look for other sites?

1.18 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): I am grateful to the hon. Members for Banbury (Tony Baldry) and for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) for participating in the debate and raising the issues. I hope that I shall at least be able to discuss the issues and concerns in a civilised way, as the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon said, and reflect on some of the issues raised. I know that the chief officer and the chair of the probation board at Thames Valley will take a keen interest in the debate, read it and closely examine the issues, and there will be further discussion with both colleagues after the debate.

The hon. Member for Banbury has raised an important issue about the role of probation officers and the need for them to tackle the job of reducing reoffending. I am personally committed to our making sure that we have an integrated service between prison and probation, because probation officers are at the front line of reducing crime and preventing reoffending. I know that the hon. Gentleman accepts and understands that that is a key role and central to the work of probation staff. I want, not just in Thames Valley but throughout England and Wales, a probation service that is responsive to communities, outward-looking and focused on reducing crime and reoffending and tackling antisocial behaviour, and that works with the Prison Service as part of the National Offender Management Service to undertake its important
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role. That is why the Labour Government have increased probation funding by more than 70 per cent. over the past 12 years.

Because the hon. Member for Banbury made his points in the way that he did, I shall be slightly political. I doubt that an alternative Conservative Government would have put in that level of funding over that period of time. Dare I say that if there is a choice of Government in the next 12 months—as there ultimately has to be—the Opposition, who talk about austerity budgets, will not be putting the future funding that the Labour Government are committed to into the probation service.

On the funding for Thames Valley, last year its budget was £26.6 million for 2008-09. This year’s budget is £25.8 million for 2009-10. Yes, I accept that overall that is a reduction of some £800,000. However, the House needs to know that Thames Valley itself under-spent its budget last year by more than £300,000. If we take out special one-off grants for training and bonuses received by Thames Valley probation service, the deficit this year is around £159,000 over last year’s budget. I put it on the record that there is not a 20 per cent. reduction in the budget for the Thames Valley probation area this year.

We have not yet finalised the budgets for 2010-11, 2011-12 and 2012-13. Thames Valley probation has been given indicative budgets by NOMS, but prior to those two indicative budgets kicking in, two events will take place. One is the next comprehensive spending review round, which will be looked at in detail, and the other is the process of a general election, which we all face in the House, and what that will ultimately result in. It is important to put both issues that have been raised in context. For this year, on a £26 million budget, the budget for Thames Valley probation is around £159,000 less than last year. It is important to find efficiencies. All hon. Members will know that there are difficult financial circumstances. The probation service has to look at how to do things more efficiently—as does the Prison Service.

It is important that I now turn to the nub of the matter. The key issue raised by the hon. Member for Banbury, which has a knock-on effect for the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, is the concern about how offender management services are delivered in Thames Valley and the role of facilities in both Banbury and Oxford. Having discussed the matter with Thames Valley, I understand that the proposal for the change in the Banbury office is a long-standing one and that it is not linked to the efficiency savings that it has to make this year. The £159,000 is not appropriate in relation to the costs of the Banbury office. Thames Valley has, for some time, been looking for alternative accommodation so that services can be centralised.

In relation to the points made by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, the key driver for the changes, as I understand them in relation to Thames Valley probation and Oxford, is the ending of the lease of the current Oxford offices. The confluence of those two issues means that Thames Valley probation has looked carefully at how it can provide an efficient and more cost-effective service that meets both needs. I should make it clear that I am not copping out of the decision-making process, but that these are executive
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responsibilities for the board and chair of the board of Thames Valley. I am accountable to the House for those decisions, but they are executive decisions.

Again, from discussion with Thames Valley, my understanding is that currently the case for the delivery of probation services in Oxfordshire is, to a great extent, centralised. Offenders resident in the Banbury area travel to Bicester or, in some cases, to Oxford. I understand from the board that offenders in Witney and the south and west of the county will travel to Banbury when Oxford is potentially a closer venue. The discussions about Banbury and Oxford relate to the confluence of issues: what we do with an expired lease and the need to try to provide a better service to offenders and their families in Oxford.

I recognise—and the hon. Member for Banbury has put this point clearly—that there is a need for Banbury residents to have services in Banbury. Again, I understand from the Thames Valley probation service that it wishes to maintain an offender management presence in Banbury for offenders who live there and in the immediate area. As a result of the points made by the chief executive of Cherwell borough council and the local police superintendent, it is considering alternative premises in collaboration with partner organisations.

I also understand from Thames Valley probation service that the Banbury office has a staff load of about 31 members. That will decrease to between eight and 15 members if the proposals proceed. The remaining officers will be transferred to other offices in Thames Valley, potentially including the Oxford office, to ensure a better service. I recognise that there is a debate on those issues. I hope that the hon. Members for Banbury and for Oxford, West and Abingdon can have discussions locally with the appropriate officers and officials.

To answer the direct question asked by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, I will certainly be happy to facilitate a meeting with local councillors and anybody else who wishes to bring a small delegation in the office of the Ministry of Justice. I will invite the chair and the chief officer of the probation board in Oxford and Thames Valley to meet us to discuss the issues. After his meeting a week on Friday, the hon. Member for Banbury can, if he wishes, facilitate a similar meeting with me. I am happy to attend.

We must encourage efficiency in the system. The board in Banbury and Thames Valley is responsible for such issues, but I believe that it is trying to implement positive performance for the probation board in that area. When I look at that performance, I see a probation board that certainly had difficulties two to three years ago and needed support from the centre to improve its performance over time. However, by the end of 2008 and going into 2009-10, it had made significant improvements. Community payback completions have risen by 21 per cent. in the past year. Domestic violence completions have nearly doubled in the same period. Successful programme completions have risen from 344 to 435. Drug treatment requirements have increased from 248 to 267. However, the acid test for the people of Banbury and Oxford is that crime has decreased in Thames Valley over the past 12 years, and particularly over the past year. Overall crime has fallen by 4 per cent. and domestic burglary by 14 per cent., although, sadly, theft of motor vehicles has risen by 6 per cent. Performance is strong.

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Tony Baldry: Does the Minister accept that in terms of good public policy, it would have been much better if the Thames Valley probation board had engaged with local Members of Parliament at the start of the process rather than the end?

Mr. Hanson: As a Member of Parliament myself, I would expect a good liaison between probation boards and local MPs. That is important. I know from my preparation for this debate that the Thames Valley board has attempted to keep Members generally informed about its work. Perhaps after this debate the chair and chief officer will consider the importance of engaging with key stakeholders in the community on changes. Ultimately, as the hon. Gentleman knows, if changes cause difficulties, they end up on the desk of a Member of Parliament or a Minister. My parliamentary account is full of e-mails from the constituents of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon. That is the nature of the business. Early engagement and discussion are important.

We have discussed real issues today. I am grateful to both hon. Members for raising them in the way that they have. This is not about finances, in my estimation; it is about organisational efficiency. I will meet both Members if they wish and ensure that the probation service engages with them to consider the outcome of the discussions.

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Anti-racism (UN Conference)

1.29 pm

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): I am pleased to be speaking on this important issue under your chairmanship, Mr. Betts. I secured this debate in order to assess the recent Durban review conference of the United Nations, which took place in Geneva. The background to the conference was that in 2001 the UN World Conference Against Racism was convened in Durban, South Africa. That conference in 2001 was plagued with problems, including high levels of hatred and anti-Semitism. The final outcome of the governmental conference was the Durban declaration and programme of action, which has formed the basis for further review.

Between 2007 and 2009, the Durban review process was meant to review the implementation by UN member states of national action plans to tackle racism, discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, in line with the programme of action. The process itself was entirely problematic. Unlike in 2001, when much of the hatred was subcontracted out by Governments to NGOs, the Durban review conference culminated in the first day address of the conference plenary by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.

The speech by Ahmadinejad was clearly an election rallying call, one that he doubtless needs because his own population has been turning on him from workers’ strikes against his failure to run the economy properly to anti-Palestinian worker protests. There is unhappiness at the levels of engagement overseas by the Iranian Government as opposed to their inability to look after domestic living standards—there is no question but that Ahmadinejad has domestic problems.

Why could that man dominate proceedings at a major UN anti-racism conference as a major Head of State speaking to the conference? In his speech, among other lines, he followed a narrative that he has used before in public. I quote an extract from his speech:

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