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Baroness Blatch: I sought to make the distinction between the intentions on the part of the department and what has been put on to the face of the Bill. I know what the department wishes to see and for that reason I suggest, on the basis of legal advice, that the Bill does not deliver that.
I should be most grateful if legal advice could be taken between this and the next stage of the Bill. I shall certainly check the point again, but it appears that the power is not in place to achieve what is sought by the Minister and the Home Office. I make no argument with the Minister here. We are all seeking the same end; namely, that local boards should be free to buy and sell services. It is therefore important to take legal advice. I believe that we each have a lawyer--I do not believe that they have met--and that they hold opposing views on this point. It is important to resolve the matter.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: As ever, I am always happy to try to oblige the noble Baroness. I shall be happy to hold informal discussions outside of the Committee on the detailed points here and I shall facilitate that. Furthermore, I shall try to clarify the point in correspondence, or perhaps our respective lawyers could meet. I am sure that we shall be able to settle what is most likely only a minor difference between us. It is important that this is resolved because there is no fundamental disagreement here.
The noble Baroness said: If other organisations or individuals are to perform the functions of officers of the board, it is important that they should receive the explicit consent of the chairman and/or the chief officer. This is a simple point, but it is an important one. Concern must be shown for the quality of the delegated functions. For that reason, we feel that this should appear on the face of the Bill in order to set out clearly that such matters are under the control of and the direct responsibility of the chief officer--or at least we think that that is the case. Having said that, the quality of the service is certainly the responsibility of the boards. Specific consent is important when functions are to be delegated outwith to a third person. I beg to move.
Lord Hylton: Perhaps I may be allowed to say a few words which I believe I should have contributed when the Committee was discussing Amendment No. 31. Subsections (3) and (4) of Clause 5 are vitally important and I should like to underline the need to avoid remanding in custody those who have been charged and are to be brought before the court. That underlines the importance of the role of bail hostels and other assistance offered to those remanded on bail.
I should like also to draw attention to the need to provide halfway houses for those coming out of prison, which is also covered in these provisions. In general, this will help to reduce the level of crime. Finally, I should like to stress the importance of providing assistance to the victims of crime.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I hesitate to say this, but I believe this to be a slightly fussy and perhaps unnecessary amendment which, in our view, might clutter up the face of the Bill. I do not intend in any way to sound unfair or unkind here. It is self evident that individuals contracted to perform the functions of a service will need to be properly appointed. However, to require that this should be done in person by the chairman of the board or the chief officer (unless these functions were formally designated in regulations) would be to impose an unnecessary level of additional bureaucracy. For that reason, I cannot find favour with this amendment.
The noble Baroness said: I regard this as another key amendment to the Bill. As the Bill is set out, it appears that the bail hostels are likely to be used for just about anyone who happens to be homeless in the area at the time, whether or not they have had any connection with the service. The clause gives to the boards the function of,
If the statistics are correct, one-third of all men under 30 have a criminal conviction; and pretty well half or three-quarters of the population at some time in their lives have had a conviction. So it becomes available accommodation to anyone who at any time has had a conviction. The kind of remit that this allows is causing considerable concern to bail hostels.
This provision and the Explanatory Notes give a wide discretion for the use of hostels which has troubled the Probation Service for quite a long time. The amendment seeks to find out from the Minister whether it is the Government's intention to widen that use. It would be helpful to have clarification from the Home Office as to its precise meaning. I know that inquiries have been made by the chief probation officers but so far they have not received any clear definition.
While flexibility is welcome--it is of course important in the Probation Service--there is a major concern about control, or lack of it, over residents who are not in the hostel by order of the court, under licence or otherwise formally under the supervision of the Probation Service. The proposal could be taken to mean more serious offenders, less serious offenders or those who look as though they might offend. It is absolutely vital that this matter is resolved before we go any further.
The issue affects many of the rules--that is, the statutory instruments--in relation to admission policies, regimes, discharges, breach of hostel regulations and, indeed, who pays for people referred to the hostel other than through the court or the parole board.
The purpose of approved hostels will alter if this provision in the Bill is passed. The requirement to reside in an approved hostel is the most severe community punishment available to the courts--it is not about accommodation--and has hitherto been reserved for those needing very close supervision. I know detailed discussions have been going on--it would be helpful to know what stage they have reached--but, under Clause 5(2)(b), "providing accommodation" is not good enough. If the Minister intends to leave it at that, it seriously widens the definition.
The Home Office can no longer evade answering the chief officers' questions about the definition, which will be very wide. It will simply mean accommodation, with or without supervision, for anyone who at any time has been charged with or convicted of an offence. It even extends to people charged with an offence.
Lord Hylton: I suggest that, in the context of this amendment, we need some degree of flexibility as to premises. Some will be provided by the boards; others will be provided by housing associations and other voluntary organisations. If we accept that, the term "in approved premises" is probably not an over definition. As to the question of who pays, it seems to me that the necessary rent or charges should be met either out of housing benefit or from a person's own resources.
As we see it, arrangements to contract out approved premises are entirely consistent with the wider objectives of "best value" and other reviews. Approved accommodation will still be subject to a stringent regulatory framework, and boards will be fully involved in drawing up contracts and local rules for approved premises. That is a very sensible way forward.
Arrangements to house and supervise ex-offenders in approved premises are occasionally made in the case of offenders who, although they are no longer subject to statutory supervision, still represent a considerable risk to the public. In our view, the clause as drafted would not reduce public protection. Adequate safeguards will be in place for boards to control the operation of accommodation managed by third parties through new regulations for approved accommodation. Locally agreed rules and the contractual arrangements will of course follow. We see no reason therefore to exclude approved accommodation from the wider arrangements for boards to contract out service delivery functions.
Division of responsibility for supervision is highly undesirable and could compromise public protection and enforcement. In our view, the amendment would reduce public protection. I do not think that that is what the noble Baroness is trying to achieve. The effects would be wholly undesirable in view of the high risk that this small but occasionally highly dangerous group of offenders can present to the public. Voluntary supervision and accommodation in approved premises beyond the supervision period are, in our view, an invaluable way of mitigating that risk.
I hope that with that explanation the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment. As drafted and argued, it would undermine the intention of the legislation and perhaps even undermine the intention of the noble Baroness's amendment.
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