Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, I have had a long association with the probation service. As my noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury said in his powerful speech, we shall vote for the amendment. The provisions in the Bill are another move towards the centralisation of power that is one of the least attractive qualities of some members of the present Administration. Of course there has been devolution to Scotland and Wales, which we supported, but in England some Ministers--not all of them--seem determined to increase their power and that of their department at the expense of adequate representation of the interests of local communities.

The process is described as "modernisation"--a word that has literally no meaning but is used with monotonous regularity to justify propositions such as the one we are discussing. The Government propose in Schedule 1 that the chief probation officer should be appointed by the Home Secretary. The amendment proposes a sensible formula under which the local probation board, all of whose members are to be appointed by the Secretary of State in any event, should choose the chief probation officer, subject only to the consent of the Home Secretary. What is wrong with that?

At first glance it may appear to some that the differences between us on the issue are pretty narrow, but they are not; they are of substance. We have the gravest objections to a local probation board having a chief officer imposed on it by a government department. As my noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury said, the CPO's principal loyalty would then have to be to the government department. If he wanted to move on to be a chief officer in another part of the country, he could apply only to the Home Secretary. There would be no question of local representatives asking him whether he was a fit and proper person to hold that office in their community.

If the current provisions remain, they will create suspicion and hostility, which the amendment would avoid. The amendment would neatly create a system analogous to the appointment of chief officers of police, who are appointed not by Ministers, but by independent, locally based police authorities, subject to the consent of the Secretary of State.

31 Oct 2000 : Column 804

The formula has worked well for the police, so why should it not be replicated for local probation boards? I fear that there may be a clear answer. I understand from people outside the Home Office with knowledge and experience of the police service that the department is now examining a centralising formula to change that system as well. That would undermine the position of local police authorities on the appointment of chief officers of police.

Where will the process of transferring power from local communities to Whitehall end? As I reminded the House some months ago, my old friend, the late Douglas Jay, caused a considerable uproar when, as a junior Minister in the post-war Labour Government, he said that in his opinion the gentleman in Whitehall really did know best. That approach lies at the heart of the argument. I do not believe that it is right. It may be suggested that the Government's approach would improve the efficiency of the service, but I doubt that it would. I have great respect for many Home Office officials with whom I have had the pleasure of working over the years. Many of them are men and women of considerable quality with an admirable dedication to the principles of public service. However, even some of them might recoil at the suggestion that these changes would automatically raise the quality of the Probation Service. Of course, mistakes can be made at local level and sometimes they are serious, but the Home Office can hardly suggest that its record is blameless. We all remember the disaster of the immigration and nationality department computer and the similar problems that beset the Passport Agency, resulting in long queues in Petty France for passports. The idea that central government knows best in all cases is an illusion.

So much for the suggestion that national control of the service can be equated with greater efficiency. It is simply not true. We have an opportunity tonight to strike a blow against the policy of creeping centralisation of power to Whitehall. Let us take it.

4 p.m.

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow: My Lords, I, too, support the amendment. Like the noble Lord, Lord Harris, I have been a Home Office Minister. I cannot understand why the Home Secretary is so keen to have the power to appoint and impose chief probation officers.

In Committee the Minister said, and repeated regularly, that the whole purpose of the Bill is to have a national probation service locally delivered, presumably by means of the local, now to be called, probation boards. The Home Secretary already has the power to appoint the members and chairmen of those boards. Why cannot he accept that the people whom he appoints will be able to choose the right person as their chief probation officer? I cannot understand why he wishes to appoint that person himself rather than leave the board to appoint him, perhaps with the approval of the Secretary of State. As has been said, that is what happens in the police force. In many ways, one might consider that the position of a chief constable is far more sensitive than that of a

31 Oct 2000 : Column 805

chief probation officer. Yet, I believe that I am right in saying that the appointment of a chief constable is made by the police authority with the approval of the Secretary of State.

In Committee my noble friend Lady Blatch asked what would happen if a conflict were to arise. I read the Minister's speech and I do not believe that he answered that question. It seems to me that potentially the proposal is a recipe for chaos. Presumably, in the end the chief probation officer's loyalty and duty will be to the person who appoints him rather than to a committee of which he is a member and on whose behalf he is intended to provide the local service.

As has been said, at present there is an overweening desire in the Home Office to centralise power, and that is not helpful to the Probation Service. It would be far better for the local board to have the power to appoint its own probation officers. Then we really would have a national service locally provided.

Lord Warner: My Lords, perhaps I may gently put forward an alternative point of view in relation to some of these issues and suggest that an excessive level of paranoia may exist with regard to some of the Home Office's approaches. Perhaps I may remind the House, first, that although chief constables are appointed at a local level, they are also appointed from a list approved by the Home Secretary. That long-standing practice has been in operation for many years on a bipartisan/tripartisan basis.

Secondly, I remind the House that the Benches opposite removed regional health authorities and appointed civil servants as regional general managers as part of the NHS Executive. That practice has been in place for a considerable number of years. It was implemented to ensure more effective delivery of improved management throughout the NHS.

Thirdly, perhaps I may remind the House of the report published in the past week or so by the Chief Inspector of the Probation Service about the fiasco over CRAMS, the Probation Service computer system. It is hardly a glittering testimony to local implementation of a much needed computer system.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. He is levelling an accusation at a service at local level. However, with considerable feeling I must tell him that the fault in relation to CRAMS is at national level and not at the service level.

Lord Warner: My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness will allow me to complete what I was about to say. I was going on to say that the fault lay at both levels. Problems exist in relation to the national implementation of computer systems both at national level within government service and at local level. The idea that all those faults rest in Whitehall, both under the noble Baroness's own government and under this Government, is frankly mistaken.

31 Oct 2000 : Column 806

I believe that as a result of the proposed change there will be greater integration across the criminal justice agencies, which is much needed at the local level. There will also be much greater consistency in the application and implementation of nationally agreed schemes.

I also draw the House's attention to the fact that the Prison Service is a national service. At the heart of some of the changes lies the desire to ensure a closer working relationship between the Probation Service and the Prison Service. Correctly, the Prison Service is answerable through the Home Secretary to Parliament because deprivation of liberty is involved. However, perhaps I may suggest that a degree of deprivation of liberty is also involved in the Probation Service's work. That service enforces court orders which restrict the manoeuvrability and movement of people. One could argue that it is absolutely right that the Home Secretary, answerable through Parliament for the activities of a national service, should have a greater say over the appointment of chief officers at local level. I leave those points with noble Lords. I believe that there is another side to the story.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I had no intention of taking up the time of the House until I heard the noble Lord's opening remarks. I believe that he deserves considerable congratulations, not on his courage but on his audacity.

I believed that we had listened to four or five moderate, statesmanlike, sensible speeches, with which I suspect that everyone on this side of the House will agree openly and publicly. I am sure that many on the government side will be of a similar view. However, when the noble Lord used the word "paranoia" about those speeches, I considered that he was over-stepping the mark by a very long way. I am sure that he has done a great deal to convince people such as myself that he is totally wrong and that those who have spoken so far on this side of your Lordships' House are entirely right.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page