Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Finally, we talked about contracting to private and voluntary suppliers, and not being prejudiced about doing so. We should absolutely not be prejudiced about it. However, the most important supports for people on the front line are supervision and the opportunity to stand aside and reflect on what they are doing and their relationships with their clients, but that is almost invisible. I cannot help but observe in other areas where services working with vulnerable people are contracted out, it is unfortunate that those supports are often cut when costs are being considered because their value is not apparent, especially not to companies that do not necessarily know about the business. There are good private companies, which are often run by people who have worked in the business, know it very well and relish the independence, freedom and creativity of running their own business, but venture capital or large business bases often do not understand what is the key to the business and they cut back on support and training for staff, and staff turnover goes up and the ability to form relationships, which is fundamental to success in this area, is in question. I highlight that concern, but I welcome the fact that some national standards are being proposed.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: I rather approve of all the amendments in this group for different reasons. They bring together the framework in which standards can be maintained. I was particularly struck by the fact that the Minister’s amendment has the slightly weasel words “as far as practicable”, which give the Government a let-out, whereas the amendment tabled in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, relates to penalties.

Returning to the contribution of the voluntary sector, which we all agree is so important in this, and the danger of it getting too much into the national framework of what a Government do, I am reminded of the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, who was on the advisory committee of NCVO on which I sit, who constantly warned against any reduction in the innovative and constant regeneration of ideas to meet modern problems that the voluntary sector is there for.

It is likely that there will be contractual arrangements with voluntary organisations, and I am sure that that is absolutely right, and, if the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, is accepted in principle, there may well be penalties, but what about the other way? What if the Government do not live up to their contribution to get the contract entered into delivered on time? Have the Government thought about that? I picked up an idea from an earlier comment that they might well be prepared to renegotiate the terms and conditions of the service. Should there not be a little bit of give and take both ways? Should penalties not operate in both directions? I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland: I support my noble friend’s final comment. One of the concerns I have had in this short debate about these amendments is the rather one-way track. Having been part of a service delivery that was assessed as one of the best in the country in the voluntary sector for treating, in conjunction with probation, some of the most dangerous sex offenders, I sometimes think we have things a little skewed when we think that the only good services come from the statutory services. I say that as someone who worked in local government for years, and who believes fervently in local government and statutory and probation services.

We need a balance. I am unhappy about penalties for very much the reason that the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, said; I do not know how you get it two ways on. A number of voluntary organisations are waiting for large amounts of money from the Home Office—and I criticise the Government for that. It is really penalty enough to lose your contract; that should be the penalty. Contracts should be given for long enough periods but with review dates. Those review dates should mean that the contract can be withdrawn if the provisions are not being met.

I, too, am interested in what happens if it is not happening the other way on—I love the answer to that question. However, I am not happy with that form of amendment because of the difficulties it will create within the relationship as it is one-way.

9.15 pm

Lord Hylton: I support what my noble friend Lord Listowel was saying a few moments ago. It strikes me that government Amendment No. 69 says nothing about supervision and support of front-line workers, whereas if you take Amendments Nos. 82 and 83 together, that would fall within their terms of reference.

Baroness Stern: I, too, follow what my noble friend Lord Listowel said. I support the idea of national standards but I worry very much about their content. It would be fair to say that the current national standards are very narrow in their conception. They concentrate on processes—the number of days that must elapse before something happens and the time that has to be devoted to something. Does the Minister have in mind standards that would really constitute a professional framework, and which would cover matters such as personalisation and individualisation of the service offered, the amount of contact with the home and the family, home visits that are made, complaints procedures for the people being supervised, and whether the requirements of the Human Rights Act will apply?

Is that how the Government see national standards or will we just have a rehash of current ones which are process-driven and do not really tell you anything about the quality of the experience received by the person who gets the service?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: This has been a very interesting debate. I have listened carefully to all the contributions made. I am trying to draw the threads together. I thought the points offered by noble Lords sought to find a golden thread but were at the same time disparate. I was also encouraged by what noble Lords said. We are all searching for something of a holy grail about how the contract and commissioning process should work and to find a way in which we can ensure that things improve and that we get that constant process of improvement. I am greatly encouraged by that.

It is particularly nice to hear my noble friend Lord Judd offering some words of understanding and, I think, praise for the approach being adopted. The noble Lord appreciates with his vast experience, particularly in the voluntary sector, the way in which the voluntary sector and non-governmental organisations can bring innovation and fresh approaches and ways of working.

Having heard all of that, I then listened very carefully to the noble Baroness, Lady Stern. She said that she was very much in favour of national standards. I made it clear in my earlier commentary that we were in favour of minimum standards. But then she went on to say that while she was a supporter of those she was worried that the Government would apply those standards too narrowly and that we would regress in some way.

I invite the Committee to have a more encouraging view of what we are trying to deliver here. We all understand that there is the same set of problems, and we are all after the same set of objectives—to improve the way in which we care for, treat and approach the management of offenders. There is an understandable fear that somehow we will not be rigorous enough in applying terms of contracts; but that, on the other hand, we may get the disbenefits of flexibility. That is why I am more than happy with the way in which we have argued through our amendments.

To try to pick up some of the points to which the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, referred on her amendment, the first part of it requires standards to be made by regulation. We think that that is inappropriate. It is not consistent with current practice. I recollect that practice is very much informed by standards that the Secretary of State has set out, and that has worked well in the past. What we have tried to achieve is based on wide consultation within and across the service and we think that we have always approached this openly and transparently. We have benefited from that. In essence, we are building on current good practice.

The noble Baroness also made the case for financial penalties—over and above other penalties, it seemed to me. I would argue that our approach is more graduated. I argued earlier that financial penalties are appropriate, and I am very familiar with that culture; I had to implement CCT, and I did not always like it. However, although we could ultimately end the contract, before we got to that point we could exact a financial penalty. We could also seek to negotiate to vary the terms of the contract if that was sensible in the light of experience because the service was not as it had been described in the original documentation.

In his amendment, my noble friend Lord Judd seeks to qualify the areas covered by the national service agreement. That takes us back to our previous debate. Here, I argue that my noble friend misunderstands the purpose of standards, which are primarily about delivery. Of course he is right that the quality and experience of those trained to carry out the contract, their work, their background knowledge and so on is very important, but we cannot begin to stipulate that in legislation. That is where we need to strike a balance and I argue that we have the balance about right. This is not a perfect science; it is an iterative process; it is something that we have to turn to at all times. However, we have adopted an approach that means that we set minimum standards, set in essence by the Secretary of State; that we set them at the highest possible level; that they are understood across the service; and that we build on experience based on current provision.

The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, asked: could the provider get standards changed? Would there be room for negotiation? Of course it would be open to any provider to suggest to NOMS at headquarters level that a standard or standards be changed if it thinks that that would help to improve performance. That goes back to the issue to which I referred earlier. In the operation of a contract, in the light of experience, it is important and necessary to reflect on that and, perhaps, to vary the way in which the standards of service are to be delivered. Ultimately, that will be for the Secretary of State to determine based on the advice of those who are closest to the service and understand exactly how the service should operate.

The noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, asked about the operation of the old National Probation Directorate. In essence, the headquarter functions that the National Probation Directorate used to carry out are now carried out at the centre of NOMS in the Ministry of Justice. They have not gone away—they are still there and are still very important—and the director of probation remains the line manager for the 42 chiefs of the Probation Service.

I think that I have answered the various points that were made in this debate. It was a very valuable debate, and it will inform the way in which we operate this policy. However, we should ensure that we retain the necessary flexibility. Because of that, it would not be right to put the standards into the Bill in the way in which noble Lords have argued. Indeed, it would be extremely unusual if we were to do so, particularly in the light of my experience of operating contracts at local government level. The noble Baroness will be well aware of those issues from her own political experience in the past. I understand some of the concerns that have been expressed about the way in which the service will operate through the commissioning and contract process, but, with the knowledge and experience that we have gained in this field and in other parts of the criminal justice system, which have benefited from this approach, we can have considerable confidence in the way in which this policy rolls out.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal moved Amendment No. 70:

(a) discharge his functions under section 2(1) and (2) during that year; and(b) carry out any arrangements which he expects to be in force under section 3(4) for that year.(a) in discharging his functions under section 2(1) and (2) during that year; and(b) in making or carrying out arrangements under section 3(4) for that year.

[Amendments No. 71 to 81, as amendments to Amendment No. 70, not moved.]

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 82 to 84 not moved.]

Clause 7 [Officers of providers of probation services]:

[Amendments Nos. 85 to 87 not moved.]

Clause 7 agreed to.

Clause 8 agreed to.

Schedule 2 agreed to.

Clause 9 [The inspectorate]:

[Amendment No. 88 not moved.]

[Amendment No. 89 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

Clause 9 agreed to.

Clause 10 [Approved premises]:

Baroness Anelay of St Johns moved Amendment No. 90:

The noble Baroness said: I hope that I can be relatively brief. Amendment No. 90 is intended to probe the consequences of a statement made by the Minister Mr Sutcliffe in the Committee that considered the Bill in another place on 18 January 2007. He was responding to the same amendment, which was moved by my honourable friend Mr Edward Garnier. My honourable friend was concerned to press the Government to give assurances about the standard and training of those who would run approved premises— the old probation and bail hostels—in the future. The names have changed, but we want the same standards.

Clause 10 gives the Secretary of State very wide powers to approve accommodation and set regulations on their management. When the Minister responded, he stated:

Indeed there are. The Bill has now progressed some five months, although perhaps the Minister might feel that it has not progressed quite far enough, given that we are only at Clause 10 after three days; but we are getting there, we really are. I say this with the Chief Whip in front of me. We will get there one day, just not this day.

What further work have the Government done on this issue and what stage has the review of child sex offenders reached? What assurances can the Minister give regarding the standards that will have to be met in resettling sex offenders after the passage of the Bill. I beg to move.

9.30 pm

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I thank the noble Baroness for putting her amendment in that way because I was a little perplexed as to why it was there, not least because, as she rightly says, there was a very full debate in the other place on those matters. The review to which the noble Baroness refers is imminent but I cannot say whether it will be completed before Report stage. I hope that it will but I cannot give a definite date. However, we absolutely understand the importance of taking appropriate steps to make sure that where sex offenders are placed, they are placed safely and securely, and that the sanctions and conditions which apply are sufficiently robust to guarantee public safety as far as is reasonably practicable. Those issues will continue. All our concerns to ensure that the approved premises are working appropriately and have the appropriate safeguards continue to exist.

As I am on my feet, I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, that I compliment again the work which non-governmental organisations such as the Lucy Faithfull Foundation have done in this regard. In the past, they have demonstrated real excellence. As for the 104 approved premises—some are in the voluntary and private sectors but the majority are in the public sector—what we have said remains true and standards will be applicable to all providers. There will be no differentiation between public, private and voluntary.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: I am grateful to the Minister. I am sure that she will understand our concern that we ought to return to such an important matter. I appreciate that the review is not yet ready for us to consider. I also appreciate that the Government are pressing ahead quite rapidly with the Bill and that it may leave this House before the Summer Recess. Obviously, we will keep our eyes open to see whether it is possible to return to it within the rules of debate on Report, although I suspect that it would not be so at Third Reading. On this occasion, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 10 agreed to.

Clause 11 [Disclosure for offender management purposes]:

[Amendment No. 91 not moved.]

Baroness Anelay of St Johns moved Amendment No. 92:


The noble Baroness said: Amendments Nos. 92 and 93 are probing amendments to ask the Minister to clarify a point made in paragraph 71 of the Explanatory Notes. On this occasion the Minister will not be able to say, “Well, this was fully debated in another place”, because those debates did not touch on this. Clause 11 is intended to clarify the power of certain bodies to share data for any purpose that is listed in subsection (4). The list is very wide. It includes,

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page