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‘Arrangements made by the Secretary of State, in accordance with which functions are conferred on officers of non-public sector providers of probation services, must include provisions requiring that—
(a) contracts for the provision of probation services from such providers be published;
(b) the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of such providers in discharging relevant functions be subject to National Audit Office assessment;
(c) companies under investigation for fraud may not bid for, nor be part of consortia bidding for, a contract for the provision of probation services, and
(d) companies with the status of prime contractor under the Work Programme may not bid for, nor be part of consortia bidding for, a contract for the provision of probation services.’.—(Mr Llwyd.)
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
Parliamentarians have avoided asking questions about the nature of private contracts on the grounds that these are subject to commercial confidentiality. In effect, this means that questions are not answered on the effectiveness or cost of these contracts, and on any deterioration that might occur to service delivery. Interestingly, those restrictions do not apply to public contracts, which are regularly the subject of parliamentary questions and freedom of information requests. If the detail of those private contracts were to be made available, including their cost, we could have proper parliamentary and public scrutiny of their effectiveness.
The contracts in question will involve matters of public safety, reconviction rates and public protection. The Government are considering letting 21 contracts to the private and voluntary sectors, with a further single contract for approximately a third of probation work that will stay in the public sector. The risk of inconsistency and variation in supervision standards, participation in programmes and, thereby, reconviction rates, is therefore huge.
Apart from the standard conditions on licence, the Government propose many other conditions that might apply in individual cases, which include participation in programmes and specified activities in attempts to reduce drug and alcohol addiction, for the treatment of domestic violence, and, in the state sector, sex offender treatment. The potential for variation in quality standards is huge; far more than under the current system where the probation service supervises all offenders. Transparent contracts would allow the public to know which interventions are most effective and which companies have the best impact on reconviction rates.
To return to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East said, if we were proved wrong following a pilot, clearly we would have to bite the bullet and say, “The Government were right in this instance.” We are not in a position to make a quality judgment at all on the effectiveness, cost and so on. We have been kept in the dark about matters of huge importance and we are being asked to nod through this measure. I am not any more prepared to do that than anyone else on the Opposition Benches.
I reflect on the point the Minister made in the last debate that probation trusts could not bid for the contracts because public money was involved and that could not be put at risk. However, public money is being put at risk: £500 million of it. Should not the public at the very least expect to know how that is spent?
My right hon. Friend is quite right and he speaks as a former Minister with considerable experience. Often, when the Government talk about money, they talk about Government money, but, actually, that is the public’s money—it is taxpayers’ money. Whether it be spent on awarding fat contracts to people of unproven efficacy or to pay for public services directly, it is exactly the same thing.
I cannot see why, as no figure will be attached to the overall scheme, the Government cannot give us a percentage on payment by results without naming a figure. Surely that would not be commercially sensitive, as we would not know the overall figure. We are entitled to know what percentage of such a figure will be paid on payment by results. The Minister is pledged to silence on this matter, but that would inform our debates and make it easier for us to consider whether the Government are proceeding along a reasonable path. That hampers us in this debate.
The Government might think that opposition is for opposition’s sake, but it is clearly not. We are here to ask questions on our constituents’ behalf. They are taxpayers and members of the public who deserve, first, to know how much money is being spent on whichever service and, secondly, whether that helps to create an environment of public safety for them. At the moment, we are in the dark on those two important criteria. We are meant to be dealing with the Bill in detail in this Committee, but that is very difficult without a lead on some of these points. I hope that I am wrong, but I think that the wheels will fall off this system in short order and we will rue this day in two years’ time if the Bill goes through.
We have huge problems ahead. We are trying to deal with a situation where we know only part of the story, at the very best.