With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendment No. 8 and the Government motion to disagree thereto and Government amendment (a) in lieu thereof, Lords amendment No. 9 and the Government motion to disagree, Lords amendment No. 12 and the Government motion to disagree, and Lords amendment No. 13 and the Government motion to disagree.
May I begin by expressing the Government's appreciation of the very careful scrutiny that the Bill received in another place? Much good work has been done and many improvements have been made, and I thank my noble Friend Baroness Scotland and colleagues in another place and my hon. Friend Mr. Sutcliffe, who is now Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, for the work that they undertook in guiding the Bill through Committee and another place. As Members will know, I took up my post eight weeks ago, but the Bill has been in existence for a considerable period, so I pay tribute to my colleagues for the work that they have done.
The concerns that hon. Members expressed on Report and Third Reading have now been addressed in another place and we have a better Bill as a result. It may be helpful to remind the House and colleagues of what the Bill will achieve and why it is so important. The statutory duty to deliver probation services lies with 42 individual probation boards, which are working to centrally-set targets and whose chief officers are directly line-managed by the director of probation in Whitehall. The arrangement was introduced after the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 was passed, and it has delivered a great deal. Some 97 per cent. of pre-sentence reports to magistrates courts are delivered within the deadline specified by the court, and there has been a considerable increase in the number of unpaid work completions—55,000 last year, against a target of 50,000, which represents an increase of over 4,000 compared with 2005-06.
We can be proud of the fact that probation workers are dedicated, are working strongly and have put into effect a number of key measures, including on unpaid work. However, the House would want me to understand the need to consolidate those gains. The task of tackling the issue of reoffending is a complex one, and we need to do the best that we can to ensure that the best available providers are engaged. To date, about 96 per cent. of services have been provided in-house by probation boards. We need to do more to involve other providers in support of the public sector, particularly, may I tell my hon. Friends, to support the work that it undertakes. We need, too, to move towards more outcome-focused arrangements that free providers from all sectors to innovate.
The Bill as drafted lifts from probation boards the statutory duty for making arrangements for probation services, and places it firmly on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor. It creates new public sector bodies, probation trusts, with which the Secretary of State may contract. That does not mean that my right hon. Friend will run services directly from Whitehall. What we are proposing, and what I hope the House will accept, is a coherent structure that enables services to be commissioned at an appropriate level with clear lines of accountability. Commissioning of services under the new arrangements—I hope that this will reassure all hon. Members—will take place at national, regional and local levels. That has been of concern to several of my hon. Friends, and I hope that the discussions that we have had during the passage of the Bill have helped them to understand where we are with the particular service that I am seeking to introduce.
My right hon. Friend has just mentioned a very significant and welcome development in the way in which the Bill is considered. Does he see any merit in including that in the Bill, so that there can be no doubt that commissioning will take place at the most appropriate level—local, regional and, if necessary, national?
I will, Madam Deputy Speaker, but commissioning at national, regional and local level, to which my hon. Friend referred, is exactly what the Government are trying to achieve in the Bill, and the opposite of what the Lords amendment proposes. I can assure my hon. Friend that commissioning will take place at national, regional and local level. I say that for the simple reason that the issue is at the heart of the amendment that we are discussing.
My hon. Friend asked whether we could at some point consider including that description in the Bill. I hope he will accept the spirit in which I have spoken today, the spirit in which I have spoken in other discussions about the Bill, and indeed the spirit that contrasts so starkly with the proposal from another place for commissioning only at local level.
I wonder whether my right hon. Friend agrees with Lord Falconer, who said about commissioning in his speech at the centenary conference of the probation service
"Sometimes it will be done regionally or nationally... but I see this as the exception rather than the rule"?
Local commissioning would be the norm, he said.
That goes to the heart of the amendments, which is why I have focused on it from the outset. I entirely agree with what the then Lord Chancellor said at the conference. There will be a mixture of commissioning. Some will be at national level, because in certain cases and with certain contracts that will be the best way of securing a strong and efficient service. There will also be a strong role for those commissioning work at regional level. As my hon. Friend surely accepts, economies of scale will sometimes be necessary, and some services will be best purchased and commissioned at that level. However, there will also be a need for local probation trusts to act not just as service deliverers but as commissioners of services from the voluntary sector, or from others, providing a proper service to help prevent reoffending at local level.
I cannot give my hon. Friend any assurances about what will be commissioned at national, regional or local level. What I will say is that it is—I hope—self-evident that certain services need to be provided at national level, and others at regional level. I hope and believe that a considerable amount will be provided at local level, but for reasons I think my hon. Friend will understand, I am not in a position to assure him of that today. We need to examine in detail some of the services that will be provided.
I can say today that, in the case of most services, regional commissioners will make arrangements with lead providers, who, in turn, will act as both providers and commissioners for the probation area. Provided that their performance meets the required standard, as I believe it will in most cases, the lead providers will be the probation trusts. They will concentrate on delivering core offender management work, while commissioning interventions at local level. I believe that they will welcome that, and that it will help the Bill's passage through the House of Commons.
The Government oppose the Lords amendments because they seek to undermine the entire basis of our proposals to improve the delivery of probation services. When they were debated in another place, their supporters were unequivocal in their backing for greater involvement of providers from other sectors, particularly the voluntary sector. Speaking to the amendments on behalf of the Opposition, Lady Anelay said:
"We have no philosophical or political objection to probation services being provided from outside the existing public provision."—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 21 May 2007; Vol. 692 c. 552.]
That was consistent with what David Davis said when summing up for the Opposition on Third Reading. It is therefore hard for me to understand why the Opposition have tabled their amendments, as those who support them claim that the Government proposals in part 1 are centralising—but as I have explained, they are not. They allow the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor to determine what needs to be commissioned, as is his responsibility. There will therefore be clear accountability and responsibility in respect of what he at the national level asks regional commissioners to commission, and there will also be clarity in respect of what they in turn ask of local commissioning boards. The amendment would destroy that clear accountability and that focus in national, regional and local commissioning by removing completely the local element and not sufficiently clarifying the relationship between the Secretary of State and the local trusts.
The Minister is in danger of conflating two separate arguments and therefore of misleading himself. There is a distinction between my views on the amendments and the structure that the Bill provides and those of Labour Members such as Mr. Gerrard. He disapproves of the contracting-out of what has until now been a state-provided service—that is what the argument over contestability is about. On the other hand, I have no philosophical objection to contestability, but I do have an argument with the Government—with which the hon. Gentleman might agree—about the top-down micro-management of the probation services from the Secretary of State's office via his various subordinate quango offices. So long as the Minister understands the distinction between those two, or possibly three, sets of arguments, he will not mislead himself or the House.
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for ensuring that I do not mislead myself, but let me say that I am clear about the points I making to the House today. I am aware that my hon. Friends hold the views he has described on contracting out. I fully expect the vast majority of current probation boards—in future, probation trusts—to have sufficient quality to be able to secure services at local level and then be in a position to determine, with regional support and a national framework and direction, the services that they provide. I am also clear, however, that we will need to ensure that we raise the standards of probation trusts that do not meet the standards that we expect as, sadly, some current probation boards underperform. We must raise standards, and I have every confidence that we can do that within the framework of the public sector—with the vast majority of trusts remaining public sector-based and delivering services at the local level, and with support from regional commissioners and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
I do not support the amendments as they would remove the regional structure; it is claimed that services provided at regional level could not provide economies, and the issue of potentially underperforming probation trusts at the local level is not tackled, because no meaningful clarification is offered of the relationship between the Secretary of State and the trusts. The amendments would do a disservice to people whom all Members wish to be supported; we all want offenders in the probation service to be helped not to reoffend.
There is an honest disagreement. I hold a different view from that held in another place, and I am trying to explain it. I hope that I will secure the support not only of Mr. Garnier but of my hon. Friends. The amendments sound appealing but they are not realistic, and Governments deal with reality. The proposals in part 1 of the Bill will enable probation services to be delivered by a range of providers, and to be tailored to local needs and set within a clear framework of accountability.
That clear and consistent approach should be contrasted with that suggested by the amendments. It is claimed that the amendments provide for local commissioning, but they do not. They would give us the worst of all worlds. They do not provide the means to ensure greater involvement for other providers and they do not provide for any meaningful accountability. Nor do they provide the means for entering into a mature dialogue when concerns about performance arise, as they will with some underperforming boards, save for the blunt instrument of making provision elsewhere. That is not a format or mechanism that my hon. Friends would support in principle.
As I have said, I am grateful for the contribution that the other place has made to the debate on this Bill. I am also grateful to my hon. Friends for their close scrutiny of some of the issues. Much progress has been made with the Bill during its passage and I hope that tonight we can make further progress with some of the amendments. As hon. Members will see with later amendments, the Government agree with some elements suggested in the other place. However, I cannot support amendment No. 6, nor can the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations or, dare I say it, the CBI. I know that that will help to drag my hon. Friends en masse into the Lobby. However, that is an important contribution, because the CBI has to work with the people in the probation service. The Local Government Association does not support the amendment either.
I hope that the lack of support from those three organisations and the consideration that we have given the Bill today will persuade the House to reject the amendment. I hope that my hon. Friends will agree that the Bill provides the possibility of determined commissioning at a national, regional and local level, in the interests of the probation service and offenders, with the objective of reducing crime.
"The Bill has a joint purpose: to improve the supervision of offenders and better to protect victims. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, that what all have done in this House has been to that end. As the Bill moves back to the other place, we wish it God's speed."—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 16 July 2007; Vol. 694, c. 25.]
I also agree with the Minister when he says that the motives of both Houses have been of the highest. Unusually for such a contentious Bill, party political argument has been mostly absent, and we have had some good arguments on it. We have had some rigorous and intellectual debates about the Bill's motives, and I hope that will continue this afternoon.
That said, I shall now move away from that consensual spirit by telling the Minister that he should not describe the amendment as an Opposition amendment. We are seeking to defend an all-party and no-party set of amendments that were introduced in the other place. If he looks at the debate in the other place, especially on this amendment, he will find that Conservative peers—he quoted Baroness Anelay—Liberal Democrat peers, Cross-Bench peers and Labour peers went into the Lobby against the Government. The Minister is therefore seeking to overturn amendments that had all-party and no-party support in the other place. To reduce the argument to Government versus Opposition is to make a false point and devalue his arguments for resisting the amendments.
I would explain the essential difference between the Minister and me by saying that the Opposition do not want probation services to be micro-managed from the top down—from the office of the Secretary of State for Justice. I should note in passing that, when the Bill began its life in this House before Christmas, we were of course talking about the Home Secretary.
The hon. Members for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and for Selby (Mr. Grogan) might advance some collateral but different arguments, but we believe that, in certain circumstances, supervisory services could properly be contracted out to the third sector—charities, church groups and not-for-profit enterprises—and commercial enterprises.
Given what the hon. and learned Gentleman has just said, why would Stephen Bubb of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations say:
"We do not believe that the amendments discussed in the Lords to clause 3...would provide the catalyst needed to increase the role of the third sector"?
I shall deal with that question head on. It is not surprising that an organisation such as ACEVO, which represents some of the country's biggest charitable organisations in this field—or that the CBI, which represents some of the biggest companies in the country—should prefer the convenience of bilateral relations with the Secretary of State for Justice or one of his subordinates. That subordinate could be the chief executive of the National Offender Management Service, or it could be one of her subordinates—namely, a regional offender manager who is directly responsible, up the chain of command, to the Secretary of State.
Such a system would be preferable for the organisations that I have mentioned, because they would not have to go through what they regard as the expensive administrative inconvenience of having to deal with the more than 40 probation trusts that will come into existence under this Bill, or what are now known as probation boards. I can understand that. If I ran an organisation such as Turning Point or one of the other grant farmers—and I use the expression in a descriptive rather than pejorative way—that operate in the field, I would find it altogether more convenient to deal with the smallest possible number of contracting partners.
I received a fairly apoplectic letter from Mr. Bubb during the Bill's Report stage in this House, and a rather less apoplectic one the other day. The latter was addressed to "Dear Edward", and it was couched in identical terms to letters that were sent to every other Member of Parliament. I suspect that each letter addressed its recipient by his or her first name, but Mr. Bubb is employed to advance ACEVO's interests and I do not criticise him for that. However, I am employed by my constituents and the public as a whole to try to produce the best possible legislation, and to ensure that it best suits the purpose of improving the supervision of offenders and protecting victims. To be honest, the Minister's arguments contain nothing that supports the contention made by the Attorney-General in the other place that the Bill is designed to achieve those aims. The Government's objective in seeking to overturn the amendments is fairly straightforward: they want to concentrate the power of contracting into a few, centrally located hands.
I debated these matters at a meeting of the Local Government Association not long ago with the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Mr. Sutcliffe, when he was Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Justice. He said, quite candidly, that the line of responsibility of a regional offender manager would not be to the local community, or to the local probation board or trust. Instead, the chain of command would go up the line and back to Whitehall: it used to be to Peel house and the Home Secretary, although it is now to Selbourne house and the Secretary of State for Justice. Unless the Government understand why there is so much cross-party objection to the model, the argument will go on for quite some time. It may or may not be a dialogue of the deaf.
The Minister must understand that there is a need for, and a genuine purpose in having, commissioning at a local level. For goodness' sake, most crime is committed locally. Yes, I fully understand that there is a problem with international, cross-border and cross-regional crime. However, most of the work that is done in the Crown courts—I declare an interest as a Crown court recorder who occasionally has to read probation officers' pre-sentencing reports and has to seek the advice of such people when considering sentences—and certainly most of the work that is done in the magistrates courts is locally derived.
It therefore seems to us that the best response to local crime, in terms of community sentences and what is required in the supervision of offenders—both offenders on community sentences and those who have been released from custody—is one that is derived locally. The local judiciary, local councillors, the local magistracy, local probation officers and staff, and all the other interlinking agencies, such as social services, education authorities and others—all of whom have a common interest in reducing offending in the local area and supervising offenders in the most effective way—are the best reservoir of information and knowledge about how to organise things. No matter how good the motives of the Secretary of State or the chief executive of the National Offender Management Service and her regional offender managers, that is putting the cart before the horse. I urge the Government to think carefully about how they wish to take this matter forward.
If one reads the letter sent by the Secretary of State for Justice to me and no doubt others in the House, one can see evidence of the constant desire to pull things back into Whitehall and to control. I am sure that the Minister will have cast an eye over the letter before it was sent out from his Ministry. The Secretary of State writes:
"The aim of the Bill is to improve the delivery of probation services so as to reduce re-offending and better protect the public."
That is not controversial. The letter continues:
"To achieve this, the Bill removes the exclusive existing role for local probation boards, and establishes probation trusts as the public sector providers with whom the Secretary of State may contract. Regional Offender Managers...acting on behalf of the Secretary of State, will commission services."
So even in the third paragraph of the letter, we can see the direction of travel.
The letter continues:
"Commissioning will be an activity taking place at national, regional and local levels. Instead of the current situation, where 42 probation boards are managed directly from the centre, local lead providers will work under contract to ROMs for the delivery of services in a probation area."
So we are going to have members of ACEVO and the CBI coming to deals with the ROM about how best to carve up the national cake. The matter will be dealt with at a regional or national level and any crumbs that fall off the edge of the regional or national table and which ACEVO or the CBI do not want will be allowed to be picked up by the smaller fry, who will be permitted to have their share.
The letter goes on:
"The lead provider will concentrate on the delivery of offender management, while sub-contracting much of their interventions work to other providers based on what is most effective, and who is best placed to deliver, in their local community."
I pause there to comment that the person who is going to decide who is best placed to deliver is not somebody who is based locally, but the Secretary of State, via his subordinates. He will look from on high with his telescope at the worker bees getting on with such work as he condescends to give them, whereas I would rather the worker bees contracted directly locally, taking into account what is relevant and works in particular constituencies.
The letter continues:
"Where interventions can be delivered more effectively across a region, ROMs will contract directly with providers, but this will be so as to complement, not replace, the local arrangements."
Hon. Members can believe that if they will. Later on in the letter, the Secretary of State mentions accountability and local links, and says that he wants
"to use the powers in the Bill to devolve power to the local level. In particular, we will strengthen the existing local and regional arrangements for reducing re-offending across a range of partner organisations."
Well, guess where those organisations will come from. The letter continues:
"We have demonstrated this on the face of the Bill by amending it to ensure that the duties to agree, and have regard to, Local Area Agreements transfer from the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, along with the commensurate duties to co-operate with the relevant local authority overview and scrutiny committees. The boards of probation trusts are now required to include a local authority councillor"— this is an interesting point—
Guess who will decide when it is practicable for a local authority representative to become involved: it will be the regional offender managers, the chief executive officer of the National Offender Management Service, the Secretary of State, or even the Minister. We can see that the whole philosophy behind the Secretary of State's argument is to pretend to give with one hand, but actually to control and to retain with both hands, so I look on what the Government propose with the greatest scepticism.
Owing to time constraints, I will not argue in support of the points that Members in the other place made in favour of their amendments, which I seek to retain in the Bill. Those of us who are interested in the subject will have read with care the arguments of my noble Friend Baroness Anelay, the noble Lord Ramsbotham, and Liberal Democrat, Labour and Cross-Bench Members in the other place in support of the arrangements that I wish to see retained in the Bill. The Minister will have studied them, but clearly he was not persuaded by them. However, I urge hon. Members to be persuaded by them, first, because those arrangements are right; secondly, because they will work better; and, thirdly, because, ironically, I suspect that they fit better with the ideas and philosophies of the Labour party. They would enable us to do better what the Attorney-General asked us to do: to improve the supervision of offenders, and better to protect victims. With those words, I urge the House to sustain the amendments introduced in the other place, which come under the heading of commissioning by probation boards and probation trusts.
I want to speak to Lords amendment No. 6, on the key issue of who does the commissioning, and at what level commissioning takes place. Throughout our consideration of the Bill, I have been concerned to ensure that we do not destroy the good work done by the probation service and the probation boards. The key probation tasks should still be carried out locally, and should be determined at that level through local partnerships. In the early part of our debates on the Bill, much of the focus was on the issue of contestability and where that was taking us. Some of my colleagues on the Labour Benches and I were extremely concerned that there appeared to be an agenda of privatisation which was driving the Bill.
In addition, there is the idea of allowing much more commissioning that involves the voluntary sector. I want to make it clear—I have had to make it clear several times—that I do not oppose the involvement of the voluntary sector in probation work, where appropriate, but when people pray in aid bodies such as the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations and the CBI we have to take it with a pinch of salt. The issue is not just one of convenience, which Mr. Garnier talked about; a not-for-profit organisation is not above empire building, and I am sure that we have all seen plenty of examples of that. Organisations do not approach the issue as outsiders with a neutral, objective point of view. They have considerable vested interests in what happens—a financial interest if it is a private company, or empire building in the case of a voluntary organisation.
I accept that, as the Minister said, some commissioning is best done at national or regional level. I see examples where that is clearly the case, such as hostel provision, which is performed at a national level now. If the hostel is to accommodate sex offenders, it should not be in the locality where the sex offenders come from and where they may bump into their victims in the street. I can see other examples where economies of scale suggest commissioning at national or regional level. Electronic tagging is an obvious case where that makes sense, as only one or two companies provide the service. We do not want 40 probation areas to end up with 40 different contracts.
I entirely understand the Minister's argument. I accept what has been said in the past few days. In the letter that he knows was sent by his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to me and other hon. Members, there has been a significant shift in the Government's approach. The Secretary of State writes that he sees commissioning at national level of some very specialist low volume, high cost services—hostels would be an example—and that the regional commissioners will take strategic overviews for their areas but will work in partnership with local authorities, the National Treatment Agency, learning and skills councils and so on.
The most important thing that the Secretary of State said was about local provision. The lead provider, which in general will be the probation board or trust, certainly to start with, will act as both provider and commissioner and will concentrate on delivering the core offender management work. An equally important assurance that he gave in the letter, which my right hon. Friend the Minister repeated, was that provided its performance meets requirements, the lead provider in a probation area will be the probation trust. The lead provider will engage with other partners in the local strategic partnership to agree and implement local area agreements.
I am coming to that. The letter is significant. It represents real movement from the Government's position some time ago. On Third Reading the then Home Secretary said of local area agreements and partnerships:
"At the moment, one of those partners is the present probation board, which is both a commissioner and a provider. That will change and the commissioner element of that will go to the regional commissioner."—[ Hansard, 28 February 2007; Vol. 457, c. 1023.]
Clearly, on Third Reading it was intended that the local probation trust would not be a commissioner. I accept that there has been a significant shift, and that the present Secretary of State says that the local probation trust will be both provider and commissioner and will take the lead in local commissioning.
My concern, which others raised earlier, is that that is not on the face of the Bill. Will the Minister think again? The Bill, with amendments, will obviously go back to the other place. Will he consider putting on the face of the Bill what has been said—that the lead provider and commissioner will be the local probation trust, and that the Secretary of State will, rightly, have the power to step in when what is done locally is not satisfactory? Poor quality service should not be allowed to continue, so the power for the Secretary of State to step in is needed. If that was in the Bill, someone could, if necessary, challenge that intervention, perhaps by judicial review.
I very much welcome the Secretary of State's letter, because it gets us, if not to where we want to be—there are still elements of the Bill that cause me considerable concern—then much closer to where we want to be than where we were, certainly on Second Reading. I am still worried about the bureaucracy that will be involved in the regional structures. I am still not clear about who makes the decisions on commissioning. The Bill originally said that it would be the Secretary of State, the amendment suggests probation trusts, and Ministers are saying that we will have to have both. In fact, there are three possibilities—the Secretary of State, the regional offender manager, or the local trust working at different levels, with the focus on the local, which is where it should be. The question is who decides what is commissioned at the regional level and at the local level. I want the emphasis to be with the local—with the probation trust—not with the regional offender manager.
My hon. Friend is talking about one of my key concerns. What we have heard from the Minister today has taken us a lot further forward. I think that the Government have now accepted that some of the very good local, finely tuned work, which often deals with only small groups of people but is none the less an essential part of effective probation and offender management, is secure and will continue. Does he agree that that is an extremely important advance?
That is right. It very much fits in with what was being said last week in the annual report from the chief inspector of probation services, who said that incremental improvements had been made and that we need to continue that process instead of throwing the whole structure up in the air. What Ministers have said in the last day or so is moving in the right direction. The current situation is not perfect, but there has been an important shift in what is being said, which is very different from what was said on Third Reading. I wish that we had been in the position of having this productive discussion around the time of Report and Third Reading, when we could have been much nearer to getting to where we should be.
Given what the Minister said, I am not going to oppose what the Government are doing, although that does not mean to say that I will necessarily vote for it. I hope that if this is discussed again in the other place we will get into the Bill exactly the sort of things that Ministers have been saying and that the Secretary of State said to me in his letter.
I do not intend to detain the House at great length, but I want to say a few words, given that we are having the crucial part of our discussion right at the beginning.
Nobody can doubt the important role played by probation services. There is a churning of people who regularly commit crimes against our constituents, and breaking that cycle is an absolutely crucial public policy objective of the Government and is in the interests of everybody in this country. I ought to say straight away that my party has no innate hostility to diversity of provision—far from it. The voluntary sector is currently involved in providing probationary services in some circumstances, but our objection to the Bill and the Government's intentions is that we do not wish to see legislation starting from a top-down, prescriptive assumption that is driven by the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State will be responsible for commissioning services either directly or through his agents—the extraordinarily named regional offender managers. That gives us a sense of the tone and style of this arrangement; people with such overbearing and rather grand titles will impose their blueprint on those who serve at a more local level, which gets to the crux of our frustrations and our problem with the Government's position.
As we are in the business of citing organisations in our support, the Probation Boards Association emphasised recently that crime is a local phenomenon with local causes and solutions. That is very much my experience. I represent a sizeable county town in the largely rural county of Somerset, and doubtless it has problems that are familiar to different communities throughout the country, but specific problems may not be replicated in quite the same way in, for example, the constituency of Mr. Gerrard, who represents a part of our capital city.
We need probation services that are finely attuned to the individual needs and requirements of each community, and an approach driven from the top down by the Secretary of State with his regional enforcers seems unlikely to achieve that desired objective. We are looking, in microcosm, at the wider problem with the Government's attitude to public services. Perhaps it is a hangover from the previous Prime Minister, Tony Blair—
It is an opportunity to say his name on the Floor of the House.
Perhaps the measure is a legacy of Tony Blair's approach to public service reform, where the language was modernising and high on rhetoric, but in practice we often dealt with a controlled and restrictive blueprint.
The reality of the previous Prime Minister's Government was reflected by the fact that in the winter estimates, it became apparent that the headquarters of the National Offender Management Service was to receive £60 million to £80 million more than the entire front line of the probation service. We can see what the Government are in the business of doing. They are pulling not just power into the centre, but money with it.
I am grateful for that intervention because it further reinforces my point. In essence, the critique is this: the Government are persuaded intellectually of the need to improve public services through the devolution of power and authority, to allow a thousand flowers to bloom and to empower local communities, but they are instinctively incapable of turning such rhetoric into practice. They talk the language of freedom, but they practise the actions of control. That is our objection to the Government's proposals, and for that reason I shall not back down, as some Labour MPs have said that they are inclined to. My party will vote to frustrate the Government's objective.
On Report and Third Reading—perhaps a little late in the day—the Government began to listen, thanks to the personal interest that the then Home Secretary took in the matters that we are considering. Significant movement occurred, albeit somewhat late in the day, on contestability.
The Government made a commitment to exclude the core probation services for three years from contestability, which covers report writing, supervision of serious offenders and breached proceedings. We were promised that best value would be adopted as the test of whether a contested service would be successful. The dogmatic adherence to a target budget percentage method of allocating money—that is, outsourcing 5, 10 or 20 per cent.—was abandoned. We were also promised that any changes to those matters in three or more years would be based on evidence of what was happening on the ground. The then Home Secretary undertook to ensure that the Government would establish a mechanism to learn what was happening on the ground so that future decisions would be based on evidence.
As my right hon. Friend the Minister said, the other place has made welcome movement, some of which the Government will accept. Improvements have therefore been made there. Today the Minister put it on record that in practice, commissioning probation services will take place not only from a centrally driven, Secretary of State position or nationally, but regionally—as knew earlier—and, most significantly, locally. That means probation boards and trusts. That tackles a concern that has been expressed not only by hon. Members but by people who work in the probation services throughout the country—certainly in Bedfordshire, where I have listened to people.
It is vital to keep as much commissioning as is appropriate local. That is especially important in the context of a revived local area agreement mechanism, which the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill introduces. Under earlier proposals in the Bill that we are considering, the chief probation officer would have been the only statutory partner in the local area agreement who was unable to agree to the delivery of services that the local area agreement partners wanted. Under those proposals, the chief probation officer was not in command of a budget. However, now that my colleagues in the Government have made an important clarification, the chief probation officer can say that the probation trust or board will contribute—including resources, when necessary—to the local area agreement. That is a significant improvement.
Local commissioning is important because it is based on local knowledge. Local people should make those judgments and determinations, not a regional manager or the Secretary of State.
My hon. Friend mentioned resources as well as the power to commission. We must have the financial resources. It is clear from a recent report from the chief inspector of probation that resources are not keeping pace with demand. Does my hon. Friend believe that that needs to be sorted out before we move forward?
That would be helpful. As my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard said, we would like more of an incremental approach to the way in which those matters evolve. The comments of my hon. Friend Mr. Anderson would fit in with that.
Local knowledge is important. When people know each other and have built up professional relationships of trust over several years, they can fine-tune the services that they agree to provide, often for one or two individuals. That may not appear significant on a national scale, but it makes a difference to our constituents. As we all know, much of the crime that takes place in this country is perpetrated by a handful of individuals, who are known to the authorities. It is a handful of people who need particular attention. We therefore have to work with those in a local area who deal with them. That is an important point, which the Government have rightly agreed to secure.
Securing the continuation of that will make all the difference to improving offender management. However, I have taken some time and trouble to listen to people working in the probation service in Bedfordshire on the issue, and I have not met anyone who is trying to defend something without any change, or who does not concede that improvements are needed. Indeed, many are committed to continuing to make improvements. However, they saw that that process would be blocked if commissioning at a local level were no longer to take place, because neither the Secretary of State nor the regional offender manager is in a position to have that local knowledge. I therefore sincerely welcome the words, carefully used, of my right hon. Friend the Minister in opening this debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow said that he would certainly not vote against the Government's position, but I urge him to vote for it, because we have seen a significant improvement, which is about the best we are going to get. The alternative position, put forward in the Lords—mainly by the Conservatives, but it was perhaps supported by some others—would be to exclude the possibility of regional and national commissioning. That is a dogmatic approach. Not everything needed to improve offender management can be delivered only at local level, even if, in my view, much or most of it can. We need to make the best use of the national expertise, often specialist, which is available by definition on a national and possibly regional basis.
Does my hon. Friend not agree that it would be so much better, with the talent that is available, if all the marvellous suggestions that the Government have made could be included in the Bill? Then everyone would be clear. If those suggestions are not included, is there not a danger that the Secretary of State will ultimately be responsible for all commissioning under the Bill, and that a future Secretary of State for Justice might not be nearly as well intentioned and reasonable as the current holder of that position?
I agree with much of what my hon. Friend has just said, especially as he is currently in such close proximity to the Secretary of State. I asked earlier about including some of those matters in the Bill, and in particular the structure of national, regional and local commissioning. We had an answer, on which I might like to see some movement, but what is important, and what my hon. Friend should not forget, is that what a Secretary of State or a Minister says on the record in this House is very significant indeed.
I am sure that what the hon. Gentleman says is right. Indeed, nowadays the courts can read what a Minister says, in doing their best to construe an Act of Parliament. He will remember, I hope, that about an hour and a half or so ago we were talking about the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill. The issue was whether the Government should include in that Bill the period in which the Prison Service and the police should be brought within the corporate manslaughter regime. The Government seemed to be hugely reluctant to do that. Unless such matters are in that Bill, there will always be a good reason not to do something. I earnestly urge the hon. Gentleman, with the greatest of diffidence, to apply his mind to his experience of what this Government—and indeed all Governments—do unless they are required to do something by the law of the land.
I am interested in what the hon. and learned Gentleman says, but in practice, how offender management will be delivered at the local level is so detailed and often so complex that it will be practically impossible for the Secretary of State to take over all those functions. In practice, we shall see the development of commissioning at national, regional and local levels, with the bulk of it at a local level. Yes, in theory, and perhaps in practice, I would prefer to see some words in the Bill to underpin that. However, what my right hon. Friend the Minister has said amounts to the same thing. He could not have stood before the House and made those comments unless the Government were completely committed to that approach. Frankly, I do not see any Government being able to deliver offender management and a good probation service unless much of the work is carried out at a local level. We are dealing with the practical realities of how legislation is dealt with in both Houses of Parliament.
For those reasons, I urge my hon. Friends who are considering abstaining to demonstrate their support for how the Government have listened and moved on these issues. It is also important to send a signal to the other place by supporting the Government's position this afternoon.
I thank my hon. Friends, and Opposition Members, for the constructive tone of this afternoon's debate. First, I would like to say to Mr. Garnier and Mr. Browne that the debate goes to the heart of how we see the new probation service progressing. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough believes that it will concentrate power in the hands of the Secretary of State, but I believe that it will share power between the Secretary of State, regional offender managers and local probation trusts. I can give him the assurance, which I hope will help him to join us in the Lobby this evening, that it will be for the lead provider to decide—based on local knowledge at the local level—what commissioning is necessary and what form it will take.
Certainly, the Secretary of State will need to commission some things and regional offender managers will need to commission other things at regional level. I referred in my opening remarks to the efficient scale of services at regional and national levels. As I say, certain things will need to be commissioned at those levels, but other areas of work could be undertaken at the local level. It is important to get the balance right, but it is certainly our intention that the local lead provider should undertake the relevant commissioning. That is the difference between the hon. and learned Member for Harborough and myself, and between the hon. Member for Taunton and myself, but I hope that we will not need to divide the House on that basis.
My hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and for Bedford (Patrick Hall) made a number of important points. I am very pleased that they have accepted the spirit of what I said in my opening remarks. I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow says about building my remarks and their context properly into the Bill. I will look further into the possibility of doing that, but I need to reflect in greater detail. I have tried to assure my hon. Friend that the approach of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and myself—what we have said both publicly and privately, in writing to my hon. Friend—provides the opportunity for us to reflect seriously about doing that. I will definitely look further into it.
The hon. and learned Gentleman will know that if, as I expect, the House rejects the Lords amendments today, they will go back to another place. Another place will have to reconsider them shortly. I am not a business manager, but I am sure that that will be done shortly. I will have further discussions with my right hon. Friend and parliamentary counsel about these serious matters. We need to get this right; it is not a matter of simply expressing an aspiration. Parliamentary counsel put legislative intention into effect. My right hon. Friend and I will give further consideration to the possibility of looking further into these matters and putting them on the face of the Bill.
I hope that after that assurance, my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow and for Bedford will be able to help the Government by supporting us in the Lobby and rejecting the amendments. As I said in my opening remarks, whether the amendments come from the Conservatives or have cross-party support, they will damage the principles of the Bill. Those principles are to improve the level of probation services, to make a difference on the ground, to prevent reoffending and to ensure that we build a better society by helping people who have been offenders. We need not just to help probation boards or trusts in the future, but to involve the voluntary sector in providing effective services.
I very much appreciate the tone of the debate, and I urge my hon. Friends to support the Government, in view of what I have said about the possibility of putting such matters into the Bill.
I now have to announce the result of a deferred Division on the Question relating to political parties. The Ayes were 295, the Noes were 141, so the motion was agreed to.
[The Division List is published at the end of today's debates.]