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Lord Elton: My Lords, there is a preliminary point that needs to be cleared up. The Motion before the House refers to Amendment No. 39 moved by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, that the House does not insist on its amendment for the reasons that he gave. The Motion to which the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, spoke applies very much later on in the Marshalled List. I believe that it is Amendment No. 121C, if I remember correctly. Therefore, if the House divides at the end of this debate, it will not be on the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, but on the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton.
The noble Lord may wish to take advice or think about that for a moment. I entirely endorse what both the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and my noble friend have said and in the interests of expedition I shall not say it again. The chief probation officer needs to be the servant and colleague of his board and not the servant of the Secretary of State and a colleague of his board.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Elton, wishes me to clarify a procedural issue. I am happy to do that at this stage. My understanding is that any Division as regards the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, will have to wait until we deal with Amendment No. 121. We are now debating Amendment No. 39.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, since the Government are attempting to overturn an amendment which was put forward at the last stage in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and myself, I hope that the House will allow me to make a few points on this important matter. Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, readily accepted, the matter is fundamental to this part of the Bill.
It is not an argument as to whether we have a national service, but about how to make it most effective. It was striking that in the justification put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, in seeking to overturn the amendment that this House passed on the last occasion, the word "consistency" rang like a dirge through his speech. The key word here is "effectiveness". After all, consistency can be second or third rate. We on this side of the House feel very strongly indeed that effectiveness is infinitely more important than consistency, particularly where a lack of it may be a very proper reflection of the different experiences in many parts of the country where different criminal regimes have to be contended with. There may be different social circumstances.
If the Government want to neutralise the local probation boards and diminish them and ensure that no one of real power and consequence wants to serve on them, then they have only to continue treading this path. As my noble friend Lord Dholakia and the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, have said, the powers retained
It is a question of the maintenance of experience. As the noble Lord has frankly admitted, there is no precedent for this measure. The characteristics of effectiveness, the morale, drive, pride, commitment and energy so desperately needed in the local boards if they are to do a good job--and how much we hope they do--are simply not consistent with the balance of powers constructed by Schedule 1 to the Bill and in particular if the chief officer is appointed or imposed by the Home Secretary of the day.
Perhaps I may add to the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. If this were a company the Home Secretary's position would be that of a shadow director. If it were a trust, the Home Secretary's position would be that of a de facto trustee. There is no question about that. That alone should give pause in consideration of the arrangements being put forward.
It is not unfair to suggest that perhaps the most unsatisfactory aspect of the 18 years of Conservative rule, as I hear it from their lips, is the way in which they chipped away at local powers and centralised. I thought that this Government understood the dangers of the tendency which every government suffer to centralise power in the wholly fallacious belief that if it is in Whitehall it will be better and more sensitively and economically exercised. I do not know of anyone beyond the Government Benches who believes that. If I wanted to score a cheap point--and I shall--one might cite the Dome where many hundreds of millions of pounds have been expended on precisely the principles that the noble Lord has advanced today for his Schedule 1 structure..
Surely, the most important thing here is to have an effective partnership between the Home Secretary and the local boards. It must be a partnership that can work and of broadly equal powers. Here it is a partnership--if one can use that term at all--of subservience on the part of the local boards.
I remind your Lordships that I asked the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, at previous stages of the Bill if he would explain how the matter would develop. Let us suppose that the chief officer of, let us say, the Suffolk probation board travels to London for a meeting with other chief probation officers under the guidance of the national chief probation officer, and he is told about the Government's line to be followed on particular aspects of the delivery of justice in the regions regarding punishment and policy towards the wide discretion which magistrates are given under our complicated criminal law. Let us assume that that line is not liked by the Suffolk chief probation officer. He returns to Suffolk with the order ringing in his ears to deliver that line of policy in the Suffolk probation board.
Let us suppose that at the board meeting where this important matter of policy is discussed the remainder of the board believe as the chief officer does and persuade him that his views are the right ones for Suffolk. They may not be suitable for Newcastle or Liverpool. What is that probation officer to do?
No answer has been forthcoming from the Government Benches. The reason is that there is no answer. The system proposed is of a chief probation officer with the person to whom he is responsible further along the line and who is not present at the board table and not even in Suffolk, but far away in London. In those circumstances unanimity among the members of his board can have no influence on what he can do and does. That is unworkable. If the Government do not know that then they should. That is why we on these Benches are persevering and why we shall not be content with anything short of the minimum requirement that a board must appoint its own chief officer. We must bear in mind and never forget that if he or she does not do well, he or she can be removed by the Home Secretary of the day at the flick of his or her pen. I speak for the Members of this House on these Benches and I know I also speak for the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. The Government's proposal is a serious error and I hope very much that even at this stage they will have the courage to withdraw their amendment.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, strong and powerful views have been expressed on a familiar argument which we have gone around on several occasions. At the outset I said that there was a fundamental disagreement between us. There remains a fundamental disagreement between us on these matters.
The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, thinks that the current system works well. Our view is that the current system, for all its strength--the strength is there in the staff, in the time given freely and honourably by members of local probation committees and in many of the chief officers--is far from perfect. For that reason we have set ourselves on this course of reforms.
I made the point during my opening comments and observations about the disparity in enforcement and the wide variation in the way various orders are acted upon and interpreted; and it has to be remembered that there is considerable variation in the quality and integrity of many of the local programmes.
The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, made much of the other powers which the Secretary of State will have. I do not dispute that those powers are there. They are clearly set out as part of a new national scheme to create a new national service. We do not want to create a service where there is a built-in collision course. We believe it is better to have a system of appointments which will work from the beginning, and let the service get off to a good and sound start.
We have set out in the Bill a system of practical management of services. It is not an argument about constitutional niceties. Much as I respect the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, for his view, we shall continue to differ. We see the central appointment of the chief probation officer--the chief executive of the locally delivered service--as fundamental to our belief and commitment in our reforms to create and sustain a new national Probation Service.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, asked a number of questions. She started by saying that it was an important technical and legal argument. She asked three questions. First, she asked whether local boards are bodies corporate? The answer is, yes, and the Bill makes that clear. Secondly, she asked whether chief officers are civil servants? The answer to that is, no, they are statutory office holders. Thirdly, she asked whether chief officers are autonomous? They are members of the board in the structure and must act for the board, but subject to the Secretary of State's direction. Certain functions within that can be delegated to them directly by regulation.
We have had a strange debate. It has not borne directly on what we are trying to achieve. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, raised an extraordinary red herring. She sought to compare this issue with the relationship between W H Smith and Waterstones. They are two separate commercial organisations. The situation that we are trying to create is where the Essex Probation Service is part of the same national organisation as the Gloucester Probation Service, rather than having two rival organisations. We are trying to create one organisation nationally. If the amendment is insisted upon by your Lordships' House, it will strike fundamentally at the heart of our powerful reforms.
The question of conflict was part of the argument used against the Government's position. I thought that I had described accurately the line of accountability and the chain of management. There is no doubt that if there is a conflict there will be efforts undertaken to resolve any such conflict locally. But ultimately the chief probation officer is accountable to the Secretary of State through the national director of the Probation Service. Ultimately, if conflicts cannot be resolved through agreement, the Secretary of State will have to issue directions to resolve that conflict. From time to time all organisations have conflicts within them. That is inevitable in any organisation, whether it be national or local. We must have effective lines of management and effective lines of accountability to ensure that those conflicts can at least be handled; rather than what we have in many situations where local boards disagree with their local chief officer, who has a poor relationship with the local board, and there is no one in the current system able and capable to seek a resolution to the problems. We seek to put in place something which will address precisely that issue.
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