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3.01 pm

Lord Blaker asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Triesman): My Lords, the Prime Minister and president agreed that the states in the region had a key role in finding a solution to the crisis in Zimbabwe. The Prime Minister expressed his concern at the situation and reiterated the Government’s support for SADC initiatives and President Mbeki’s leading role. President Mbeki described the progress of his mediation between the MDC and ZANU-PF. The Prime Minister stressed that Zimbabwe’s crisis was one of internal governance and that the United Kingdom remained committed to help, together with international partners, in the stabilisation and economic recovery of a reformed Zimbabwe.

Lord Blaker: My Lords, is not Africa one of the two main subjects for discussion at the G8 conference, which begins tomorrow, and do not those attending include representative strong leaders from other African countries, who recognise that the Zimbabwe disaster is bad for the whole of Africa and who need our support? Also, has not the German Chancellor said that the policies of Mugabe are not acceptable and called on African countries to use their influence for the good of Zimbabwe’s people? Is not the G8 better positioned to use its influence for the good of the people of Zimbabwe than almost any other organisation one can think of? Could this not give President Mbeki a great opportunity at last, if backed by the G8, to show that he is capable of decisive action?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, the facts relating to the statements of the German Chancellor and the potential statement of the G8 are absolutely accurate. I hope that President Mbeki will listen to the points that are made with proper and due attention. He says that he is trying to find a means by which the contending parties, including the opposition, can move forward, and that is part of his mission, but he will be in no doubt about the opinion of this country, the European Union or, as I believe we will see in the statement, the G8.

Lord Kinnock: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that President Mbeki’s current mediation efforts are the fifth such initiative since 2000 and that none has so far managed to shift Mugabe or to provide protection for civil rights in Zimbabwe or for those who work peacefully to secure democracy in that country? Will Her Majesty’s Government join President Kufuor and President Kikwete, both African presidents, in recognising that Mugabe treats such quiet diplomacy with contempt and that more direct African pressures are required? As the machinery of state terror is about the only thing that now works in Zimbabwe, does my noble friend agree that those who seek refuge from that repression by coming to this country should not be returned to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe when they are bona fide opponents of that regime, even when the current litigation is concluded?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, no one can doubt that we are aligned with what President Kufuor and others, including President Kikwete, have said. Indeed, we have gone way beyond anything that they have said. In Africa, we have been widely accused of having engaged in what people have called “noisy diplomacy”, by which I think they mean that we have been outspoken. I see nothing at all wrong in having been outspoken. It is certainly true, as my noble friend Lady Scotland said, that no one is being returned to Zimbabwe at the moment. Those who are entitled to make proper claims for asylum should have their claims treated in exactly the same way as this country historically has always treated claims for asylum, and they should not be subjected to any further peril.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, did the Prime Minister discuss with President Mbeki the vote by the Pan-African Parliament—by a majority of 149 to 20—to send a fact-finding mission to Zimbabwe? Notwithstanding the fact that that was rejected contemptuously by the Foreign Minister of Zimbabwe, do the Prime Minister and the Government think that President Mbeki and the other leaders of SADC could make a significant move forward if they pressed the ZANU-PF regime to accept that mission?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, as regards any kind of delegation going to Zimbabwe, it is hard to know what would impress Mugabe. The Prime Minister was completely clear in what he said in South Africa and in his meeting with President Mbeki. He said:

I shall not read further from the quote; it deals with life expectancy and the tragedies and crimes that we know have been committed in that country. No one is in any doubt about the United Kingdom’s position or the overall position of the EU. President Mbeki understands that perfectly.

Procedure of the House: Select Committee Report

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara) rose to move, That the third report from the Select Committee be agreed to (HL Paper 104).

The report can be found at the following address:

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this report proposes permanent arrangements for noble Lords to table Questions for Written Answer, and for Answers to be published, during the Summer Recess, following the experiment last summer. I beg to move.

Moved, That the third report from the Select Committee be agreed to (HL Paper 104).—(The Chairman of Committees.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Offender Management Bill

3.07 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD SPEAKER in the Chair.]

Clause 4 [Restriction on certain arrangements under Section 3(2)]:

Baroness Linklater of Butterstone moved Amendment No. 51:

(c) relates to the supervision and rehabilitation of people charged with or convicted of offences”

The noble Baroness said: It is clear that the Government have agreed that the writing of court reports, advice to the court on risk assessment and general advice to assist in sentencing will not be contracted out to other providers but restricted to the Probation Service or another public body. They have also confirmed that ongoing advice in the course of reviews and so on will be restricted in the same way.

That supervision of offenders, or core management, represents the ongoing work of probation, is inextricably tied into the process of reviews and advice to the courts and is therefore properly restricted in the same way. However, it would be helpful if the Minister could confirm this, following the brief debate on the subject on the previous day in Committee. In particular, it would be helpful to have clarity over the limited timescale attached to the exemption of core management, which seems to be confined to three years. It is unclear why this work has not equally been permanently restricted, or what the logic or argument is for the choice of that particular period. Is it possibly designed to test how well the Probation Service performs, or against some other criteria? We would be grateful for clarification.

The arguments for the exemption of supervision in the community under the Criminal Justice Act 2003 are strong, as we have already argued. More than 130,000 people are on orders and 47,000 are supervised under the MAPPA arrangements, being the highest risk and most potentially difficult to manage—30,000 are on orders requiring them to attend an intensive group. The concerns are that these groups must be small to be effective, which does not lie easily with concerns about profitability in private sector organisations. The MAPPA arrangements, involving long established co-operation with the police, will not be sustainable under multiple supervision or the introduction of private sector companies, as argued elsewhere. The risk of information being compromised or data not being shared is very real, as, therefore, is that of standards being reduced.

We would hope to see a significant expansion in unpaid work, which involved 55,430 people and 4.6 million hours of work last year, if community sentences are to be developed more widely, as we agree should be the way forward. But this must involve significantly greater investment, in time and manpower as well as money, if it is to become a meaningful reality. Will that be the case? The Government must put their money where their policy is in this crucial area. However, there is particular concern over the 35 per cent of individual placements, such as work in charity shops, churches or supporting adults with learning difficulties, which are particularly heavy on staffing costs. They are particularly appropriate for women, as I found in the early days of community service, when we had a couple of girls in the visitors’ centre I helped to found at Pentonville. It was a rewarding and personal experience for all concerned. Rehabilitation was part of the planning and experience. For a private sector organisation, however, it would be difficult to justify on grounds of profitability.

At present, 45 per cent of unpaid work is supplied by the voluntary sector, 38 per cent by local authorities and 12 per cent by faith groups. If unpaid work is contracted out under NOMS to the private sector, where there may be scope, this particular and important aspect must not be jeopardised or the individual placements put at risk. Unpaid work should, in general, be an integral part of the local community, where there is also accountability and where local private companies can be involved. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that individual placements, which are important to many, will not be contracted out in the same way. I beg to move.

Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: I speak to Amendments Nos. 51A and 51B which are in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Turner. Amendment No. 51A aims to keep a key public protection function in the public sector and, in so doing, prevent the conflicts of interest which partly led the Government to list court work as a restricted provision.

The Probation Service currently provides impartial, accurate, reliable, skilled and professional advice to assist the parole board in making its decisions on the release of prisoners. Information is provided in writing and verbally and a risk assessment is offered where appropriate. If this function were to be commissioned, there could be an immediate conflict of interest. For example, if the writer were an employee of a company with commercial interests in the outcome, such as tagging or private jails, that would affect the ability of the parole board to carry out its functions. Indeed, in evidence to the Home Affairs Committee in 2005, a representative of the judiciary warned that it could not be involved in a body such as a probation board if competition were introduced into services for courts and therefore, presumably, in prison board decisions.

3.15 pm

Amendment No. 51B would keep approved premises—probation hostels—outside contestability by adding them to the list of those included under restricted probation provision in the Bill. It is important to keep probation hostels in the public sector. These premises deal with some of the most dangerous offenders in the community and as such are not suitable for private provision. The Probation Service currently operates 104 hostels with approximately 2,500 places, the majority now for people on parole. Over half of these are convicted sex offenders, and in many other cases the original offence involved violence. It is essential that hostels are resourced by experienced and trained staff in order to minimise risk to the public. If hostels were commissioned, there would be a risk that the information and data could be compromised, staffing levels could be reduced and the risk to the public could be increased. The safest way to house the most dangerous offenders on their release is therefore in approved premises, commissioned and managed from within the public sector. It seems to be acknowledged within NOMS that approved premises occupy an anomalous position in that they straddle aspects of public protection and offender protection alongside offender management. Even though many aspects of their regime are designed to change and challenge behaviour and to offer support and so on, the primary purpose of approved premises is to manage the risk posed by serious sexual and violent offenders on their release.

On 4 May 2007, NOMS wrote to board chairs confirming that offender management would remain in the public sector until 2010. However, the letter then stated that,

That statement appeared to be predicated on the concept of what was “most effective” and who was “best placed to deliver”.

The feeling among those working in the area is that such provision is expected to be outside the public sector. If so, that does not appear to be consistent with the principle of best value, which will ensure that if the public sector is the best provider, then it should be given the work. Indeed, such a promise was made in the Third Reading debate in another place by the Home Secretary, John Reid, in an exchange with my honourable friend Mr Clive Betts, MP for Sheffield Attercliffe, reported at col. 1019 of Hansard for 28 February. In the same speech, the Home Secretary indicated that the 2007-08 target for subcontracting will be deleted so that trusts or boards will retain local commissioning powers while ensuring best value provision of services. It would therefore appear that we need a statutory guarantee about the direction of commissioning in relation to approved premises at whatever level they are commissioned.

This amendment is not an attempt to prevent the third sector taking an increased role in the accommodation of offenders. It is about ensuring proper provision for different groups and, in some cases, at different stages of a sentence.

Lord Warner: Although I understand the thinking of the supporters of the amendment, the amendment is effectively an attempt—when you get down to it, whatever the transitional arrangements—to institutionalise in legislation a further set of restrictions on the ability to have non-public service providers provide these services. That is how the amendment is actually framed. The Government are rightly arguing that we need a variety of public service providers. No one disputes that we are moving towards having an enabling state where the Government guarantee coverage of services and the funding of those services but also accept that there should be a mixed range of providers. These amendments would, whatever the transitional arrangements, prevent such activity taking place in another range of services in the probation service.

I remind the Committee that for 60 years we have had in personal services through primary care a load of small business men and women—we call them general practitioners—who have provided public services under contract from the private sector. In return they have also produced profit and loss accounts each year. These people are outside the public service in the public services they provide, but civilisation has not ended. They have been the envy of the world in the primary care provided. I see no reason why we should assume that some of these advances cannot be made also in a wider range of probation services activities.

Lord Judd: Perhaps I may be permitted to respond to those remarks by my noble friend. As someone who has put his name to this amendment, I would encourage him not to tilt at windmills. Nothing could be further from my mind in putting my name to the amendment than the motives that he suspects might be lurking somewhere behind it. I put my name to it simply because it re-emphasises yet again that if we are co-operating with others outside the formal public service, it is tremendously important to remember what the priorities are, and to emphasise that in the confusion of tasks which may be expected of them, the key task is the rehabilitation of offenders.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, was right to press the Government for clarity on Clause 4. On that basis alone I support the way in which she has addressed her amendments. Like the noble Lord, Lord Warner, I approach the clause from the point of view of wishing to see contestability work well and not to inhibit it unless it is absolutely right to do so. There are reasons that can be forcefully adduced for saying that there are some areas where contestability should not be rolled out just yet, if at all. That has been the mainstay of much of our debate during our first days in Committee, in which so many noble Lords have taken part.

The amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, raises vital issues that have to be resolved if we are to make good progress on the Bill when we reach Report. Clause 4 was a concession from the Government during Report stage in another place, way back on 28 February. It restricts the Secretary of State’s power to award contracts for probation services. In effect, it ring-fences the public service provision of probation services to certain offender management services. That ring-fencing can be removed only by statutory instrument under Clause 12. This amendment appears to extend the ring-fencing to a wider range of probation provision; hence the cautionary note from the noble Lord, Lord Warner.

When these matters were debated in another place, my honourable friend Mr Edward Garnier made it clear that we do not intend to intervene in the Government’s negotiations with others regarding the extension of the protection of services from being opened up to contestability, because we support contestability. However, as a result of the response of the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, and the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, to amendments during our third day in Committee, I feel that it is necessary to take part in this debate to try to get further clarification. I hope that I will not test the patience of the Committee too much if I simply set out where I believe that clarification needs to be achieved, because it will have a direct impact on how I approach my Amendment No. 99 when we reach Clause 12.

The clarification that I am looking for is as follows. First, I want clarification about the Government’s plans to roll out contestability. Secondly, I want a definition of what is covered by Clause 4. Thirdly, I want to hear the Government's justification for not extending the protection in Clause 4 to other sectors of offender management. Fourthly, I want to hear about the timetabling of their plans to remove Clause 4 by statutory instrument.

I am grateful to both Mr Harry Fletcher from Napo and Mr Stephen Ormerod from Unison for their helpful briefing on these matters. I may not agree with every crossed “t” and dotted “i” in their briefing, but I recognise that, as always, they are so well informed and have the best concerns of good delivery of services at heart.

I appreciate why all the amendments have been tabled. They are put forward on a matter of deeply held principle and are to be admired on that basis. They perform a valuable function, in that they require the Minister today to put clearly on record what services the Government expect to remain in the public sector as a result of the protection given by Clause 4. That is not just a matter of semantics; it is about knowing which services will be put out to contestability and whether the guarantee given by Dr Reid in another place of three years for the survival of Clause 4 has now become a guarantee for a longer period.

On Third Reading, Dr Reid described what I and my right honourable and honourable friends thought was a two-stage roll-out. The two-stage roll-out appeared to be as follows: first, as soon as the Bill is on the statute book, all offender management work, except that covered by Clause 4, would or could be opened to contestability. The Bill clearly gives the Government the power to do that. Whatever other assurances they give, the power is in the Bill. The core services in Clause 4, the second part of the roll-out, would be protected for only three years and Clause 4 would then be removed by the affirmative procedure. He said that the,

Later, he said:

It was a three-year guarantee.

In Committee in this House, however, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, stated:

That implied that the Clause 4 concession does not cover all offender management. That is what needs to be clarified.

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