My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords who have spoken to these amendments relating to the contracting out of secure colleges. I recognise that at the heart of these amendments is an appetite to know more about the Government’s plans for the secure college pathfinder, which is to open in 2017, as the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, accurately said. Notwithstanding this understandable curiosity, I am concerned that the effect of these amendments would be to limit substantially the ability of the Secretary of State to secure both innovation and value for money from prospective operators of secure colleges.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, quite rightly described some of the educational challenges that will exist in relation to this cohort of young people. Of course, they exist now, albeit in different custodial establishments. There is nothing new about the challenge; the question is how you meet the challenge.
Amendment 118 proposes that the selection criteria for secure college operators should be set out in regulations, and that these regulations should be debated and approved by both Houses of Parliament. Noble Lords are aware of our desire to invite innovation in the provision of services to educate and rehabilitate young offenders in secure colleges, and in our view this amendment would undermine that ambition.
Similarly, Amendment 119 proposes a statutory limit of five years on the life of a contract for the operation of a secure college. Again, this would constrain providers in their ability to deliver efficiencies and improved outcomes, potentially undermining the very goals secure colleges seek to achieve. Of course, the Government are ever mindful of expense and this limitation would run counter, we suggest, to the interests of obtaining a satisfactory contractual relationship. It is important to stress that no such constraints apply to the Secretary of State’s powers to commission any other form of custodial provision, and we do not believe that they are appropriate here.
Our intention is to launch a competition next year for an operator of the pathfinder secure college. We will set out our expectations of providers in an operating specification and we will inform bidders of the criteria against which they and their proposals will be evaluated. We will then enter into a period of dialogue with bidders. The dialogue process will be a critical phase of the competition as it will allow us to refine our specification in light of the types of innovation suggested by bidders. I do not want to repeat what is already in the consultation rules that noble Lords will have seen but noble Lords will be aware of what we seek to achieve in terms of blocks of education.
In some areas of secure college provision, such as those identified for inclusion in the rules, the Government will want to clearly specify their requirements; in others, however, we will want to create a degree of flexibility for the experience and expertise of bidders to propose new ways of delivering services and improving outcomes for young offenders. I am sure that all noble Lords would agree that we need to improve those existing outcomes. Requiring the criteria by which an operator will be selected to be set out in secondary legislation would, I fear, both delay and hamper the established processes for procuring services that meet the Government’s expectations.
I hope it reassures noble Lords that we are working closely with the Youth Justice Board as we plan for the opening of the pathfinder secure college in 2017. Its expertise in commissioning custodial services for young people will directly inform both the operating specification issued to the market and the criteria by which successful bidders are to be identified.
To answer the question that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, effectively posed—how will you assess the bids for the operation of the pathfinder secure college?—we will use a structured and objective evaluation process to identify the most economically advantageous tender. It will involve separate evaluation of the quality of the solutions and price; it will be conducted by a range of personnel with relevant experience—as I indicated, the YJB and the MoJ have extensive experience of objectively and robustly assessing operational service bids—and bids that fail to meet the prescribed minimum acceptable threshold level of the evaluation will be put aside and not considered further.
I understand why the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, would seek more detail than I am giving him but I hope that by outlining the process, and by the words I have used to describe it, he will understand why the Government are unable to accept his amendment. I hope he is reassured about the process by which secure college operators will be selected and will feel able to withdraw his amendment.