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Lord Dholakia: This clause deals with support services. It gives power to the Secretary of State to privatise probation support services such as administration, secretaries or information technology. Over recent years, administration has become an integral part of the probation team. Roles have increasingly become blurred. For that reason it is valuable to have one employer and one set of negotiations for both sides. There is a danger that privatisation of parts of the Probation Service could lead to fragmentation and communication problems.

The privatisation of prisons has always been controversial and the private sector has succeeded in keeping down costs only by offering lower wages, employing fewer staff and imposing poorer pensions. We believe that privatisation of one aspect of the probation estate would be a source of conflict and disharmony.

I suggest to the Minister that a better way of seeking to ensure better "value for money" would be through modern managerial techniques: investing in staff; effective information technology; and adequate and regular training for all staff. I hope that the Minister will agree that this would be a better way of dealing with the issue, rather than simply to consider privatisation.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: This measure in Clause 8 has been included to make it possible for the Secretary of State to make arrangements for support services for local boards to be undertaken centrally by the staff, or to be contracted out. He would be able to do this only if by so doing, better efficiency or better value for money could be achieved.

It could be of particular use where economies of scale could be achieved by grouping boards either regionally or nationally and letting a contract for the provision of a service. The nature of the services which might be covered is not tightly defined in the clause. The services are defined only as those services which are required by local boards in the exercise of their functions. They could range from cleaning services through to payroll provision or staff training.

This clause is not designed to cover the contracting out of core activities involved in the supervision of offenders. I should like to make that point clearly understood. Local boards may contract out the delivery of such services under the provisions in Clause 5(2), but in that case the board concerned, rightly, would retain responsibility for ensuring that the arrangements it put into place were appropriate and that the contract which had been let had been fulfilled by the contractor.

This clause does not concern the wholesale privatisation of the Probation Service or of the support services that form a part of it. It concerns making practical, sensible, good value for money and efficient services work in the best interests of the service.

2 Oct 2000 : Column 1230

Clause 8 agreed to.

Clause 9 [Approved bail hostels, etc.]:

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Turner of Camden): I must tell the Committee that if Amendment No. 49 is agreed to I cannot call Amendment No. 50.

9.15 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No.49:

    Page 5, leave out lines 2 to 5 and insert ("premises in which accommodation is provided--

(a) for persons granted bail in criminal proceedings (within the meaning of the Bail Act 1976), or
(b) for, or in connection with, the supervision or rehabilitation of persons convicted of offences.
( ) References in any enactment to an approved bail hostel or approved probation hostel are to be read as references to premises approved under this section.").

The noble Lord said: The amendment will remove distinctions between categories of hostels and will enable all approved hostels to accommodate, where appropriate, offenders who are subject to drug treatment and testing orders or licence conditions, or those who, while not subject to statutory supervision, require an enhanced level of supervision in residential accommodation to assist their rehabilitation.

The proposed changes in the clause will provide greater flexibility in accommodating those who would benefit from being housed in approved accommodation. This could be particularly beneficial for those serving drug treatment and testing orders, who will be undergoing treatment as directed by the courts. The supportive regime in approved hostels increases the likelihood of such unstable offenders completing the treatment element of their orders, thereby increasing the effectiveness of sentencing and improving public protection.

Hostels have an excellent record in dealing with difficult and dangerous offenders. They enable many of those who would otherwise have problems completing their periods of licence or community sentence to do so. The structured regime and framework of staff support provide the optimum opportunity for offenders to reconsider their criminal behaviour and begin the important rehabilitation process. For offenders, approved hostels represent a stepping stone back into society; for the wider public, they are a key plank in ensuring that those offenders who potentially pose a risk to public safety are properly supervised and managed rather than being left to their own devices within the community.

We want to build on the success of approved hostels by increasing their flexibility and levels of usage and, in doing so, to provide the prospects of increased public protection and reduction in re-offending, particularly amongst those on whom the court has imposed a drug testing and treatment order. I beg to move.

2 Oct 2000 : Column 1231

Baroness Blatch: I am a little puzzled. I have listened to the explanation given by the Minister and I have obviously missed something. As it stands, the Bill states that:

    "The Secretary of State may approve--

    (a) bail hostels,

    (b) community rehabilitation hostels,

    (c) other premises in which accommodation is provided for use in connection with the supervision or rehabilitation of offenders".

That is entirely consistent with what the Minister said.

But that is to be removed from the Bill in favour of,

    "premises in which accommodation is provided--

    (a) for persons granted bail in criminal proceedings (within the meaning of the Bail Act 1976), or

    (b) for, or in connection with, the supervision or rehabilitation of persons convicted of offences".

I cannot see the distinction between the two. What is wrong with the Secretary of State approving bail hostels? They have a definition in law; we know that there are clauses in the Bill which define what they are used for. The distinction between the two is not very clear from what the Minister has said.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: Perhaps the noble Baroness does not understand what we are trying to achieve. We are trying to create a generic hostel which will give greater flexibility and enable us to maximise the use of the hostels estate. That is the important point.

I do not see the difficulty. I am not sure that there is a difficulty; it is perhaps a difficulty more in the imagination than in the fact. We are trying to make sure that things work well, that we get best value and best benefit from what we have got, and that we get maximum flexibility in provision. It simply merges categories in order that we do not need to approve the same premises in three different ways. That is all it does. It provides us with the flexibility for this generic type of hostel.

Baroness Blatch: Is the Minister saying that there will not be such a thing as a bail hostel in future; that it will only be premises which have a number of different uses? Is that what the noble Lord is saying?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: That is exactly it.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 50 not moved.]

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 51:

    Page 5, line 8, after second ("any") insert ("reasonable").

The noble Baroness said: We are still on the subject of hostels. The Probation Service will be in some despair at what the noble Lord has just said, in that it is concerned about the name. Now, we understand, these are to be just "premises"; they do not appear to have a formal name. This is accommodation for anyone with a conviction, anyone who has been charged in the past. It is accommodation with or without supervision, if one takes all the answers that the noble Lord has given to the points raised during the course of our debates.

2 Oct 2000 : Column 1232

These amendments relate to Clause 9. They relate to the funding for hostels, and to applying a kind of constraint. There needs to be some financial control in terms of the expectations of what is coming down from the Secretary of State, and also in terms of what is actually provided by the Secretary of State, and proper monitoring of it.

Following the words,

    "under this section or the payment is made with a view to their approval",

in Clause 9(3), my Amendment No. 52 would provide a new sub-paragraph:

    "The total expenditure incurred by the Secretary of State under this section in any period of 12 months shall not exceed such sum as may be specified in a resolution of the House of Commons, unless a further resolution of the House of Commons determines otherwise"--

in other words, that the actual amount ought to be within limits set by Parliament. The noble Lord has intimated that that is the view of the Government; namely, that the commitment should not be open-ended. The amendment is about financial control. It is also about the proper use of funds--in other words, value for money. When this debate took place in the Commons, I noted that a large number of examples were given where the control over finance was not as strong as it might have been. I hope that these amendments will provide that. I must again declare my disappointment that the Probation Service was not listened to as regards the name for the hostels. I beg to move.

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