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I beg to move amendment 29, in schedule 2, page 24, line 35, at end insert—
(c) a provider of probation services must ensure that any matter regarding breach or an amendment to supervision after the end of sentence is referred to an enforcement officer immediately following discovery of an allegation of breach or any need to award the supervision order.’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 26, in schedule 2, page 25, line 37, at end insert
‘and the Court may in cases it considers necessary call the supervisor to give evidence at such hearing.’.
Amendment 25, in schedule 2, page 26, line 33, at end insert—
‘(8A) The court must be satisfied when discharging an order for good progress that the offender has complied with all requirements and not been charged with any subsequent offence.’.
Amendment 26 also speaks for itself. Its point is that speed is of the essence when there has been a breach. That is patently obvious—it is better for the offender, better for those supervising and better for the court as well. Amendment 26’s other point, about which I feel quite strongly, relates to the fact that when someone is brought to court for an alleged breach, there is a right of appeal. That is perfectly right and proper, and is specified in the Bill. My point is that it is not inconceivable that there might be a difficult chemistry between the supervisor and the supervised. That is not unknown—it has happened in the past and it will happen in future. I want to guard against a person being breached because a supervisor feels that they cannot be bothered with him or her and cannot get on with them, and so breaches them in order to wash their hands of them.
I understand that the allegation would go to a probation officer, who would be the enforcement officer. However, there will be cases where the court wonders whether it has heard enough to be sure that there has been a breach, with all its attendant consequences. All I am suggesting is that, on the belt-and-braces principle, there should be, on the rare occasions when that might happen, the right for a court to call a supervisor to give evidence. If the individual before the court for the alleged breach says that the supervisor did or did not do something—for example, that they had misled them in some way, not contacted him or her in adequate time for an appointment, or whatever it might be—and if the court feels it is perhaps not hearing the full story, as it always should, it should be able to call the supervisor to give oral evidence in the presence of the person being breached.
That would be a reasonable provision, and I feel sure the courts would accept it. It would not add any delay—in fact, quite the reverse—and it would ensure fairness.
First, let me deal with amendment 29, which, as the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd says, would require a provider of probation services, be it the public or private sector provider, to report any alleged breach of supervision conditions to an enforcement officer immediately the alleged breach comes to light. It also requires the provider of probation services to refer any amendment of supervision conditions to the enforcement officer as soon as possible.
I welcome the desire to ensure that enforcement of supervision conditions is timely. I would, however, point out that for alleged breaches of community orders, where supervision is carried out by providers other than probation trusts, there is no statutory requirement to report breaches to probation within a set time. This is because the arrangements are now set out in contracts and national standards. The current enforcement practice of community orders and suspended sentence orders is well established and has been consistently high.
I will not go into the details of the proposed contractual terms for providers under our reforms, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the contracts will include requirements and minimum standards in relation to enforcement of supervision conditions. There are clear financial implications for providers if they do not meet the contractual terms. That seems to us to be a more effective way of ensuring the reporting of breaches is prompt than a statutory duty that has no sanctions for non-compliance. We will return to the issue when we debate the right hon. Gentleman’s amendments 27 and 28, which relate to schedule 4 of the Bill.
If the right hon. Gentleman’s concern was to ensure that the function of initiating and presenting court proceedings for breach of a supervision requirement is reserved to the public sector, I can reassure him that it is unnecessary. As I said at our first sitting, the function of giving assistance to a court is expressly reserved to the public sector under section 4 of the Offender Management Act, and therefore any contract that purported to give private providers a power to present breach proceedings at court would be ultra vires.
With regard to amendments to supervision conditions, I point out that supervision conditions are set by the Secretary of State or those able to act on his behalf. As such, any change to the conditions must also be made by a representative of the Secretary of State—at present, a prison governor. We discussed the matter a little earlier today. A private provider cannot therefore act to vary conditions by itself and would not enforce a new or varied condition that had not been approved by the Secretary of State.
It is therefore in the interests of providers to seek a timely variation in conditions, especially if they believe the offender would benefit from additional conditions to avoid their re-offending or where there is a danger of the offender being unable to comply with conditions owing to a change in circumstances.
Amendment 26 would allow a court to call a supervisor to give evidence at a breach hearing. Again, I assume that that is meant to apply to private sector providers and to all hearings for breach of supervision conditions. In response, I simply want to make it clear that it will be for the national probation service to lay information before the court in order that the court can decide whether there has been a breach of a condition.
If the public sector national probation service is not satisfied that there has been a breach of supervision without reasonable excuse, it would not seek to lay the information before the court. It may require the provider to produce more evidence to present to the court. In this way, before the public sector brings breach action to court, it should have satisfied itself that the evidence of breach from the providers is robust and legal. That said, there is nothing in the current process or existing law that stops a court from seeking the best evidence available, including evidence direct from the provider. There will also be provision in contracts to require providers to support the breach process, including providing evidence to the court, be that documentary evidence or from the provider attending court to give evidence. I hope that that reassures the right hon. Gentleman so that he will be able to withdraw his amendment.