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Lord Bassam of Brighton: I thank both contributors to the debate for their comments. In some ways, I believe that there is a degree of consensus here. The noble Baroness agrees that there needs to be an effective national probation service. I believe that she also agrees with the general drift of what the Government are trying to do. The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, also seems to agree with the general drift of what we seek to achieve; indeed, he suggested that in his earlier remarks. In a sense, there is an irony here. All of us are informed by a strong "localist" background in our politics. The noble Baroness was an indefatigable and effective local leader and I like to think that I was not too bad in that respect. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, is very keen on the local aspect and on having services close to the locality. Therefore, I understand the strength of both strains of the argument.
However, in order to succeed and create a service that performs in the best possible way, we take the view that we need to improve performance. Good performance is already there, but we want to improve upon it and raise standards. That is the reason why we have struck out on a course to create an effective national probation service. We believe that such a service should have a structure that provides strong leadership, both centrally and locally. We want a service within an overall national strategy based on what works--and there seems to be a consensus on that aim. We also want boards that are more diverse and more representative. I know that noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches support that aim and objective. We also want a service that has better and clearer lines of accountability. We want to have the means of removing inefficient or ineffective boards. That has not been the case in the past and has sometimes proved to be to the detriment of the service. We also want to have more efficient use of the estate through central management.
Although this group of amendments is well intentioned, I believe that it is misconceived. Moreover, if such provisions were to be inserted, they would seriously undermine the Government's intentions to create a more effective and accountable service, which is clearly focused on protecting the public and reducing reoffending--again, aims with which we all agree. In our view, these amendments
At present, there is no identifiable individual who is responsible for delivering service--its wide commitments--or the means for ensuring a consistently high standard of performance. That has led to unacceptable variation in the standard of performance achieved in different areas which cannot be explained other than in terms of the quality of local management and leadership. If performance is to be raised, there needs to be a coherent national organisation with strong central leadership, together with the means to deal with poor performance.
There are many examples of very good committees within the service. Sadly, however, that is not the universal picture. I believe that that was ably demonstrated by the excellent work that ACOP carried out in auditing performance in relation to enforcement. We need a more consistent approach. If the Secretary of State is to be accountable for the delivery of an efficient service, which is vital if crime is to be reduced, he must have the means to deliver the required outcomes.
Some noble Lords have argued that the structure we propose would lead to conflict between chief officers and boards and that it would, therefore, be unworkable. I argue that the converse is true and that it will tackle existing problems. The chief officer will be a member of the board and will undertake the day-to-day management on behalf of the board. In our scheme, all of the board will be appointed by the Secretary of State and will be accountable to him. They will be required to work within the strategic framework determined by the Secretary of State. However, that will not remove the very important local dimension--we want that benefit--that we are keen to retain. Under our model the boards will be more diverse and representative of their local areas. They will have to deliver a service in a way that meets local needs. Their work--
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. In the event of a disagreement between the clear majority of a board and the chief officer, can the noble Lord tell the Committee whether it is really his proposition that the Home Secretary of the day will send a direction down to, say, Suffolk stating that the board must follow the views of the chief officer on the issue? If that is the case--it seems to me to be so from his letter--what effect will that have upon the morale, conduct and willingness to continue in service of the rest of the board?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I take the point made in what I believe the noble Lord will accept is an extreme example. I am sure that persuasion, discussion and negotiation will have taken place in such a case. I have no doubt that a resolution to any potential conflict would be best served by adopting those means. If the
Perhaps I may concentrate a little on the detail of the amendments. Amendments Nos. 10, 10B, 10C and 11 would fundamentally change the proposed board structure and, in our view, make the boards less effective. As I said before, the key to improving performance--I believe we all accept this--is good and effective leadership. It is right that members of the board, including the chief officer, should be appointed by the Secretary of State, though for judges it would be the Lord Chancellor. There is no need for co-opted members, as suggested by Amendment No. 18A.
Sub-committees will deal with specific issues. They will be able to call on outside expertise if necessary. However, the boards will not need to appoint additional members. It is our intention to involve local board chairs in chief officer appointments, where chief officers will change. The selection process that is now well under way is based on the advice of the office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. So there will be transparency in the process, which will be carefully invigilated.
Amendments Nos. 18 and 20 would, we believe, undermine the key position of the chief officer in the new structure and hamper efficient day-to-day management. Amendment No. 70 is a consequential amendment that would have the effect of treating chief officers in the same manner as other employees in respect of transfer to new services. We believe that any national organisation should have the ability to appoint its senior executives centrally. The Government are satisfied that it is absolutely right for chief probation officers to be appointed by the Secretary of State.
I realise that my response will not satisfy the proposers of the amendments in this group. However, I hope that I have directly addressed the issues raised in the debate. Our intention is to create a well-focused, well-structured, clearly-led and well-managed organisation. Yes, that will mean a degree of centralisation of direction and determination. It will also mean an important local input. We value the local, but in trying to reorient this service and ensure that it is better focused on reducing offending rates, and so on--all of which are shared objectives--we believe that we now have a model that will prove to be effective.
Baroness Blatch: I have not been more disappointed in a reply in a long time. That was a seriously defective response. The Minister does not appear to have understood any of the arguments that have been proposed on the importance of the body that we are
Does the Secretary of State really believe that he and/or the officials in his department have the time to tackle the conflicts that arise at local level? That will not result in the effective local delivery of a national service. Serious tensions will arise on occasion. People will be confused as to where responsibility lies. Such matters will be settled only in court. We certainly do not want that.
The Minister used the phrase, "strong 'localist' background in our politics". I do not approach this matter from the point of view of having served in local politics. I certainly do not bring politics into it at all. There is a difference between us here. I believe that we should approach this subject from an apolitical point of view.
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