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The measures set out in the Education and Inspections Act were welcomed by all sides, but will the Minister accept that we need to do more to ensure that help is given to those who are visually impaired, have hearing difficulties and who suffer from long-term chronic conditions?

Lord Addington: My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing this secondary legislation, which is in effect a correction. We agree with its original aim. We thank the Minister for making sure that when an error is found it is corrected. I echo the words of the noble Baroness. It is rather worrying when we are in such agreement on a matter. My interest in the cross-section of disability and the hidden types of disability is known. It is a good thing when those are taken on board and flexibility is worked into the legislation. I hope that, whatever else may be said tonight and whatever knuckles have been rapped on this matter, the Minister will tell his department that the general thrust of the measure has almost universal support.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I am grateful for the welcome given by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord. I simply say yes to the noble Baroness; I agree that more needs to be done in this area. Precisely for that reason, we introduced Section 6 and the duties that apply in respect of it. It is the reason we have produced Removing Barriers to Achievement and a whole set of other initiatives to promote the needs of young people with disabilities. It is why we have the Disability Discrimination Act and are imposing a set of new duties on local authorities, schools and other public bodies to see that they take these issues increasingly seriously. It is why we are increasing budgets in this area. I entirely agree with what the noble Baroness said. I am grateful for her forbearance and for that of the noble Lord. I hope that the House will agree to the regulations.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.45 pm.

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

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.07 to 8.45 pm.]

Offender Management Bill

House again in Committee.

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 69:

The noble Lord said: This substantial group of amendments deals with the key issue of standards. Let me begin by introducing the amendment tabled in the name of my noble friend Lady Scotland. Amendment No. 69 seeks to add a new clause to the Bill covering national standards for the management of offenders. It has been clear for some time that real concern exists about the effect of our proposals on the standards of probation services. There have been anxieties that the introduction of commissioning and contestability will lead to some providers cutting corners and diluting standards, to reduce costs and gain a competitive edge.

Our ministerial colleagues in the other place and we in your Lordships’ House have consistently emphasised that we want to achieve the opposite effect—that the aim of the proposals is to raise standards rather than lower them—but concerns have remained. That is why we gave a commitment in the other place, and reiterated it at Second Reading in this House, to give statutory effect to those assurances. That is what this amendment seeks to do.

Proposed new subsection (1) requires the Secretary of State to continue to publish national standards for the management of offenders. National standards for the Probation Service were first introduced after the implementation of the Criminal Justice Act 1991. They have been revised twice since, most recently in 2005 in response to the Criminal Justice Act 2003. In their various forms, they have proved a crucial tool in raising performance in the service. The amendment ensures that this will continue.

I ought to note that the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, has proposed an amendment similar to ours, which makes specific reference to,

I confirm that those activities are covered by the reference to “management of offenders” in the proposed new subsection and that national standards covering those activities will be produced.

Proposed new subsection (2) in the Government’s new clause makes clear that the standards may also include those relating to the management of offenders in custody. That will ensure that standards are able to support properly the development of the end-to-end management of offenders, whereby the Probation Service is involved with an offender from the beginning to the end of his or her sentence, including any period spent in prison. However, publishing standards is not enough on its own—we need to make sure that they are applied—so proposed new subsection (3) links the standards to the Secretary of State’s power to enter into contractual and other arrangements with providers. The Secretary of State is required to have regard to the need to ensure that those arrangements provide for national standards to apply to all probation providers, so far as is practicable. In other words, the standards will apply equally, regardless of whether the provider is a probation trust or from the voluntary, charitable or private sectors.

We want to encourage innovation and creativity in the way that services are delivered and to maximise value for money. But we also want to see a consistent level of minimum standards across the country. Key to that is the development of contracts that fully reflect and enshrine national standards and ensure that only providers who can clearly demonstrate that they can meet the required standards will be commissioned to deliver those services.

When they are enshrined in contracts, national standards will be one of the benchmarks against which performance is assessed by the commissioner. Failure to meet those standards will generally lead to penalties incurred by the provider. A range of sentences will be available, including financial penalties, and termination of the contract will be the ultimate sanction.

Stipulating penalties in the Bill will limit the commissioners’ flexibility to implement other sanctions that may be more appropriate in improving the delivery of probation services. By their nature, those services cover a wide range of offender needs, and prescribing penalties in advance may focus the providers’ efforts on ensuring that they deliver against those specified performance measures while allowing the quality of other important elements of the service to slip. Normal contracting arrangements will allow commissioners to incorporate a flexible package of incentives and sanctions that not only cover the wider probation environment but cater for regional and local complexities, which the use of centralised penalties may make more difficult to implement.

The amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, would add qualifications and training to the areas covered by national standards. We made clear the importance that we attach to training when we debated the previous group of amendments, but I remind noble Lords that we explained that we did not think that excessive top-down prescription was helpful.

The amendment of the noble Lord profoundly misunderstands the purpose of national standards, which are aimed at practitioners and are all about delivery. They set out, for example, the level of contact required with different categories of offender, how quickly an assessment must be made after the release from custody of a prolific and other priority offender, and so on. National standards are not the vehicle for dealing with training requirements.

The addition of our new clause on national standards is a significant improvement to the Bill and puts beyond doubt our commitment to ensuring consistency, across the country and between providers, in the standards to be expected and delivered. I hope that the House will support that approach. I beg to move.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: I shall speak to my Amendment No. 82 in this group. I thank the Minister for his exposition of the Government’s amendment that puts national standards into the Bill. It is welcome, although I suspect that many noble Lords will see it only as a first step. I am grateful for the noble Lord’s assurance regarding subsection (2) of my amendment. I had wished to ensure that the standards to be achieved should include the provision of reports to courts and the Parole Board. The Minister assured me that those would be covered and I am grateful to him.

I understand why subsection (3) of the Government’s amendment is not prescriptive on standards across the different providers and uses the term, “so far as practicable”. I realise that that may meet some resistance by noble Lords, but I can understand the legal and practical context in which the Government are working and why they have adopted that terminology. That subsection is a great step forward from the current position whereby the Bill is silent on the importance of training, and because the Government are covering all providers. The more the Government talk about using a similar approach to all providers, the more reassurance they may convey—although we have some way to go.

My Amendment No. 82 ensures that national standards must be met in the provision of reports to courts and the Parole Board. The Government dealt with that. Subsection (3) would require that those who fail to meet proper standards of probation provision should pay a financial penalty. I was very interested to hear what the Minister said. I listened most carefully when he talked about incentives and sanctions being part of the process. I agree with him entirely. One wants to provide incentives in the contract to ensure that people want to bid and to make them feel proud of the work that they are doing and that there is a can-do mentality. One wants voluntary organisations, in particular, to offer their services in the expectation that they will be able to make a real contribution to outcomes in the probation world. Equally, I am certainly aware that if there is to be any kind of contestability with any meaning, there must be sanctions.

When I tabled my amendment, I was contacted by Third Sector magazine, which asked me to comment on why I had done so. I was asked to provide a quick response as there were only 24 hours to go before the magazine was due to be published. At the time, I was working on the Serious Crime Bill—noble Lords will be able to hear the violins. I tried to turn round a story but then the magazine did not reply, so unfortunately the article appeared in Third Sector magazine without the benefit of my contribution. I tried to explain in an e-mail that my views could be read in Hansard, and of course my honourable and right honourable friends in another place had given their views.

I understand that voluntary organisations may fear that penalties—financial or otherwise, such as the curtailment of their activities—might damage their standing. I refer not just to their professional standing among their peers but also their financial standing, and I was certainly told that charities were concerned that their financial position could be endangered.

I was also told that some charitable providers felt that they would become risk-averse and would not be as flexible and willing to enter the arena in the first place. I was concerned about people worrying that they would become risk-averse because I do not see probation providers being risk-friendly. All probation work carries some risk but one weighs that up against the outcome that one is going to achieve and the kind of people one is using. Anyone who hopes to win a contract to provide probation services will not be taking risks at all. They will have gone through a very careful evaluation, and the work that I have done with charities has shown that that is what they do if they are to enter a commercial relationship.

Therefore, I was not concerned that my amendment would be a threat to charities or in any way undermine their flexibility and their ability to respond. However—I have had conversations around the House about this—I believe that charities may have misunderstood the implications of contestability for them, and that is what lies beneath my tabling the amendment. Charities have been enthusiastic about contestability because they have seen the income stream that it will guarantee them. Their views have been jaundiced when trying to get money from the Home Office in the past, or perhaps when their contracts have not been renewed or they have not been paid the full amount. They see this as some kind of security for the future but it is not all going to be like that, and I think that small charities, in particular, may find that they are not quite in the position that they had hoped for.

I have worked in a local part of a national charity. We changed it into a company limited by guarantee and bid very successfully for a series of contracts under what would have been contestability by any other name—not in probation but in a related field. I have seen the success of that operation but it has changed the way that the charity is operated—as it had to. The range and remit of the charity changed, although its core principles did not change, but it had to accept penalties if it entered into the arena.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: Perhaps I may make a simple point. I hear what the noble Baroness says on this issue and I understand it from my own experience in the field, but I think that she is describing the development of professionalism within smaller charities. I would argue that, in this instance, that is most welcome and we should encourage it. I understand that penalties can seem scary, but we have to have some form of sanction to ensure that we get the standard of service that I think we all agree we require.

9 pm

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: Throughout the Bill, we have heard the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, say that there is not much between us and this time I can say it—it is true for once. I appreciate that, if there is to be any success in the rollout of contestability, there have to be penalties. I still think that there will be a change in culture among some charities. That may not necessarily all be unwelcome, but it will be a very hard experience. I hope that we end up with charities that are stronger, because they have the most marvellous abilities.

Amendment No. 83, in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Judd and Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, provides a very helpful enlargement of the scope of my amendment. If I were to vote on mine, I would say yes to Amendment No. 83 first. At the beginning, I made it clear that I welcome what the Government are doing as a first step—I suspect that others may wish to press them further—and I certainly support Amendment No. 69 and shall not press mine.

Lord Judd: I would like to speak to Amendment No. 83. I thank the noble Baroness for the generous comments she has just made about it. I always find her remarks fascinating, but I found her remarks in speaking to her amendment particularly interesting, informed as they were by direct experience. I agree that this is a very serious undertaking for anyone who enters into a commitment to provide probation services. We cannot overestimate the damage that could be done. That is why the training is so important. They have to be able to understand why people are and have become criminals and how they see life. Apart from anything else, it is a psychologically demanding task. It is important to remind people just what a serious undertaking they are entering into. I am with her on that.

Amendment No. 83 provides the means of fulfilling subsection (1) of Amendment No. 82. I do not quite see the point of making provision for standards to be achieved unless one says how that is to be done, including the necessary training. That is why I believe that that needs to be in the Bill somewhere. I hope my noble friends on the Front Bench will forgive me hammering away at this point, but I believe that is essential and will give credibility to the whole thing. I say to my noble friend who has spoken to the government amendment that I respect his commitment and understanding, but I believe that this point has to be in the Bill. This is another opportunity to make the point and, therefore, I make it. I shall move Amendment No. 83.

Lord Ramsbotham: I am extremely glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, has raised a very important point about charities and their accepting contracts. My noble friend Lord Listowel mentioned earlier the presentation to the Cross-Benchers by the chairman of the Charity Commission in which she introduced her report Stand and deliver. In that she pointed out the dangers of charities changing their missions to respond to direction from funders. If they did, they risked their charitable status and their trustees would be liable for the changes. I looked in vain at the regulatory impact assessment to see whether there was any mention of the likelihood of an impact on the voluntary sector for accepting contracts under terms like this and what it might do for them and I found none. It is an important point which has to be thought through with great care before one launches into the wonderful idea that one can contract the voluntary sector to do all kinds of things which are desirable in a partnership sense, but one has to think of the integrity of the charities that are employed.

Baroness Linklater of Butterstone: I briefly go again into the lion’s den, to support these amendments which follow on from our previous discussion. The regulation of standards is yet another area where the Bill is curiously silent, particularly on the provision of reports, the monitoring of content, the supervision of offenders and financial penalties for those who fail to hit government targets, as we have just heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay. The Secretary of State must have a duty to set standards as well as revise them. Without the amendment, there will be no specific body to set standards for probation practice. Amazingly, I have discovered that the National Probation Directorate was established just six years ago and is currently being abolished by the Home Office. Perhaps we could hear more about that from the Minister.

Lord Judd: Before my noble friend replies, I take up a point of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. The noble Lord has put his finger on an important consideration of the Opposition’s amendment. I have just said that one cannot take too seriously the commitment into which any agency enters in undertaking to provide a service in this sphere because of the damage that could be done without the right kind of understanding and professionalism, however enthusiastic and well intentioned it is—and perhaps all the worse because of that. In that sense, I commend the Opposition’s amendment.

However—and I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, prompted me into making this observation—in saying that, I do not want to be taken as one of those who has joined a dangerous trend towards a subcontracting culture in the voluntary sector. There must be hard talking between any agency and the Government before the contract is sealed. There must be an understanding that a good agency with real experience and something to offer will bring something to that situation which must be taken seriously. There must be hard talking. What comes out of it must be a partnership, not just between the contractor or subcontractor and the Government, but one forged through honest discussion. Once it is entered into, it becomes a serious commitment to deliver. I do not believe that that point can be over-emphasised.

The Earl of Listowel: I thank the Government for bringing forward this amendment to set national standards for the management of offenders. It is crucial to ensure that there is a proper, professional framework for those working on the front line.

I was somewhat disappointed when the Minister said that he did not wish to take a top-down approach or talk about training in these minimum standards but preferred to set broad parameters, although I understand the motivation. In children’s homes, for instance, there is a minimum standard whereby there is an obligation to provide someone on the front line with one or two hours of supervision with a senior practitioner once a month. When they first start, there is obligation to give them even more. That is where this could make such a difference.

We have seen that supervision decline in social work. In children’s homes, that is the worst case scenario: where things have gone to pot and there has been no professional framework. If one looks to the Continent, one can see a huge disparity between those working with the most vulnerable children and young people in this country and abroad. There is a danger that, in seeking to implement the Bill—even with all the good intentions behind it—standards could go down in the transition. Having national minimum standards for quality and quantity of supervision clearly set out, for instance, would be very helpful indeed if we could go that far. That might be along the lines of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Judd.

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