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Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the Minister is in a generous frame of mind. I shall accept his response and hope that something can be agreed between now and

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the next stage of the Bill. If not, we shall certainly return to this matter at Third Reading. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

4.45 p.m.

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 9:

    Page 54, line 12, after ("holding") insert ("or managing land and other").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, there is concern over the arrangements for holding and managing land and/or property; there is also concern about what the Home Office has in mind when taking control of property. Am I being too cynical in my thinking if I suggest that there may be cost-cutting in the guise of rationalisation of land and buildings? One only has to read what the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, wrote in letters both to the service and to those of us involved in the debate to understand why our suspicions are aroused in this way.

Local employers need to be allowed to manage at local level. That involves, for all the services, reading the property needs of the area consistent with providing an effective service. Paragraph 28 of one of the helpful letters we received from the Minister, which I understand was copied to all Members involved in the debate, states:

    "We [the Government] are convinced, however, that there are sound reasons for concentrating ownership and overall management of the Probation estate in the national directorate. We believe these to be:

    accounting responsibility will be placed squarely on the Government;

    there will be a better opportunity to control investment, procurement and development so as to make the best use of all the assets of the National Probation Service".

There is an issue in that statement in that the people who know best their property needs at local level will be the local service. It will be helpful to know from the Minister, first, how that will happen in practice; and, secondly, how the bureaucracy for doing that will be minimised. Every pound spent on unnecessary bureaucracy is a pound that does not go to the service itself.

The letter goes on to state:

    "probation property will become part of the wider civil estate, with the benefits which accrue from that, including cost savings as a result of economies of scale and rationalisation".

I am not so sure, looking around the Probation Service, that it has a great deal of surplus property. But let us give the Government the benefit of the doubt. They go on in the letter to state:

    "new boards and service managers will be able to concentrate on delivery of their core functions and not be distracted by issues involving real estate".

Again, procuring, making bids for and asking for property development locally often involves a lot of time. So just because property management is being run nationally does not mean that somehow that time will be dissipated and can be used in the service itself. Therefore, it will be useful again to have chapter and verse from the Minister in relation to the specific arrangements.

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However, I find paragraph 29 almost offensive. It states:

    "It is also clear that the existing arrangements have worked far from well. For example, a detailed survey by Donaldsons, a firm of chartered surveyors, which took place in 1999 concluded that there was inadequate management of the estate despite excessive staffing"--

I repeat, "excessive staffing"--

    "and that a fair proportion of it was unsuitable for purpose and in poor repair".

May I suggest that, if it is "unsuitable for purpose" and it is "in poor repair", that reflects more on the department than it does on the service at local level? The department, as I understand the way in which the service works at the moment, actually approves capital spending for any changes and any refurbishments at local level. The Government go on to state:

    "We believe that a more rational national approach will help to remedy these deficiencies and benefit the service as a whole".

The service would surely say "hurrah" to that if the service going national meant that all its property needs would be met in a more effective way than at the moment; but I feel the slight cast on the service in that paragraph is regrettable. I beg to move.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, we on these Benches support this group of amendments. We believe that some of the Government's justification for the proposals in the Bill, and in Schedule 1 in particular, is spurious and will not be realised in practice. Far from relieving local probation boards of concern and worry, the proposals are likely to add to them. Nothing can be more frustrating than having relatively modest property matters dealt with via Whitehall, with the distancing and bureaucracy that that can and often does mean. I know from experience on quangos that it is a great boon to be able to handle one's own property matters. It invariably leads to quicker, more effective, more efficient and, in the end, cheaper property arrangements.

As the boards will have the important task of keeping an eye on their own expenditures, it is important that they should be able to strike local bargains. A centralised property service may be unable to do that.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, in reflecting on what has been said in this short debate, I see that the argument is part and parcel of our earlier arguments about central versus local. It ought not to be. We are proposing a national service, creating a more rational, better and efficient use of the resources available to each board. I shall deal first with the amendments and then the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and the noble Lord, Lord Phillips.

Amendments Nos. 9 to 11 and 34 to 36 change the wording of various provisions in the Bill relating to the powers of local boards in respect of land and other property. Amendment No. 9 would give the local boards a specific power to hold and manage land as well as other property, subject to directions given by the Secretary of State. Amendments Nos. 10 and 11 would remove the Bill's current prohibition on boards

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holding land and instead make both holding and managing land permissible, subject to the approval of the Secretary of State. That is a reflection of the language of earlier amendments.

Amendments Nos. 34 to 36 would enable the Secretary of State to transfer land from probation committees to local boards. I understand, therefore, that that is an enabling provision.

I believe that there has been a great deal of confusion about the question of holding and managing land and other property. Perhaps I may remind the House that we spent a great deal of time debating the issue in Committee. As the noble Baroness fairly said, I have written to her and circulated the correspondence widely in order to try to clarify the position.

However, perhaps I may try again to make the Government's position clear. We believe that it would be wrong for the local boards to hold land. In a national organisation, which the national probation service for England and Wales will be, it is appropriate and sensible for the ownership of all land to be held at the centre. We will therefore be clear about who holds the land and why they hold it.

On the other hand, in balancing that, we have every intention that local boards should have full day-to-day control over the properties they occupy and that they should have such control as is currently provided in the Bill. Within that framework, we believe that it would be absurd for local management to have to refer to headquarters its need to call in plumbers, electricians or local service providers. That would be ridiculous. That must be understood but it was the proposition served up to your Lordships in Committee.

If understanding has moved on from there, I am pleased. I hope that my correspondence addressed those issues. However, it must be the case that within a regime of best value, where we are seeking to optimise the greatest benefit from the national holding of an estate and to procure more major services, the national holding of such assets makes a great deal of sense.

The noble Baroness had a suspicion that the proposal was somehow linked to cost cutting. I find that a strange suspicion for her to hold because, as I made plain in earlier debates, we are investing substantial additional sums. We have, effectively, reversed cuts which were imposed on the service in the mid-1990s. In proposing the arrangement for holding property and land we are seeking simply to make better use of it.

The structure of the national probation service will mean that we reduce the number of board areas from 50 to 43 so that they are coterminous with the police authority areas. It seems to me sensible that in that process we should seek to manage our land, buildings and so forth nationally. The rationalisation can then be conducted sensibly. No doubt from that it will be seen that the arrangements we are seeking to put in place are for the long-term benefit and improvement of the service.

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I happen to believe--the Government, too, happen to believe--that local probation boards should concentrate on the job in hand; that is, administering and delivering local probation services. That is exactly what they should be about. They should not be involved in the day-to-day management of property, a function which I believe can properly be left to the headquarters--the major agency--of the national probation service.

That is what we are trying to achieve through the legislation. There is no sinister or other agenda. The proposals are not about cost cutting but about ensuring that good, beneficial, best-value principles are in place so that we can conduct the management of the estate in a more effective and efficient direction. I would have hoped that the noble Baroness would see the sense of that.

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