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Clause 14 - Officers responsible for implementing orders

Offender Rehabilitation Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:30 am on 3rd December 2013.

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Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Justice) 9:30 am, 3rd December 2013

I beg to move amendment 2, in clause 14, page 12, line 25, at end insert—

‘(1A) (a) Where the offender is sentenced to a community or suspended sentence order after being charged with an offence of a violent or sexual nature, a stalking offence or a domestic violence offence, the responsible officer must be an officer of a public sector provider of probation services.

(b) In subparagraph (a) “public sector provider” means—

(i) a probation trust, or

(ii) the national probation service.’.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 6, in clause 14, page 12, line 25, at end insert—

‘(1A) Where the responsible officer is an officer of a non-public sector provider of probation services the Secretary of State must—

(a) designate the provider as a “public authority”, as defined in section 3 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000;

(b) limit contractual arrangements with the provider for the provision of probation services to a maximum length of five years;

(c) prescribe key performance standards that the provider is required to meet in regulations to be laid before, and approved by resolution of, both Houses of Parliament;

(d) have the power to terminate the contractual arrangements at any time if the provider fails to meet the key performance standards; and

(e) agree with the provider a percentage of the contract fee that must be returned to the Exchequer on the occasion that the provider fails to meet the key performance standards.’

Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Justice)

I hope that I do not impede too much the speed of progress that we are achieving. Clause 14 and schedule 4 is about officers responsible for implementing orders. This is of some considerable interest to Opposition members of the Committee, for obvious reasons. Clause 14 provides that the responsible officer managing those on community sentences may be an officer of any provider of probation services but specifies that certain duties—namely, advice to a court—must be undertaken by a public sector officer. The Offender Management Act 2007 provides that assistance to a court must be reserved as a duty for the public sector.

Our amendments are all identical to amendments that we pressed on clause 3, so colleagues will be pleased to know that I shall not go through every aspect of those arguments again, but they affect community sentences this time and the same sort of arguments apply. These amendments deal with important issues about managing risk, managing contracts and piloting the Secretary of State’s proposals. As I doubt that the Minister has had a change of heart on the merits of piloting, I will not rehearse the arguments again but will certainly look to address these concerns on the Floor of the House on Report, as I am sure he would expect. We shall not press the amendments to a vote right now, but we remain concerned about these issues and will return to them on Report.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

We return now, as the hon. Lady has explained, to issues that we have already covered fairly fully in the Committee, so I am sure I need not speak for long either. I shall deal briefly with the amendments before us.

Amendment 2 would prevent any organisation, other than the public sector probation service, from dealing with any offender who receives a community order or suspended sentence order after being charged with a violent or sexual offence. I suspect that the word “charged” in the amendment is not what the hon. Lady meant, because offenders may be charged with one offence but convicted of another, but I understand the thrust of the argument.

I shall not reiterate the arguments that have already been made in Committee, but of course I would rely on arguments already made in relation to the way in which risk of serious harm works, and the fact that conviction offences are not always a reliable indicator of the risk of an offender’s causing serious further harm to the public. Therefore, I suggest, Parliament should not set crude definitions relating to which agency should supervise an offender: professionals working with that offender should decide that question, based on a risk screening or assessment at the outset by the national probation service.

Amendment 6 would impose various duties on the Secretary of State, in order for him to be able to lawfully make arrangements for an officer of a community rehabilitation company to be a responsible officer for an offender serving a community order or suspended sentence order. I responded to the list of conditions in the amendment in the debate on amendment 33—the close identical twin of amendment 6—on periods of supervision. I do not need to list them all again, but it is worth putting on record that we accepted the Justice Committee report on CRCs and the Freedom of Information Act and will be issuing revised guidance to public authorities on sharing information.

We believe that seven to 10 years is the right length for a contract, to allow for a long-term view and to encourage innovation in reducing reoffending. On performance standards for CRCs, the Secretary of State already has a duty under the Offender Management Act 2007 to issue standards, and suitably modified standards will now apply to CRCs.

We will place additional contractual requirements on CRCs with respect to how they deliver community order and suspended sentence order requirements, so that we can ensure that these aspects of the sentence are delivered to time and quality. I will say again that in our view, the appropriate place for a performance framework is contracts, not secondary legislation.

In view of those remarks and what the hon. Lady has said about her intentions, I hope that she will now ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Justice)

I am happy to do so for today, but we will return to the matter on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Justice)

I beg to move amendment 5, in clause 14, page 12, line 25, at end insert—

‘(1A) The Secretary of State must prescribe minimum training requirements to be completed by the responsible officer in regulations to be laid before, and approved by resolution of, both Houses of Parliament.’.

Again, we are concerned that responsible officers will not be trained to what might be considered a minimum standard, so we want to probe the Government about what they consider to be the minimum level of training, supervision and qualification for such an officer. We are worried that people supervising offenders in the community will lack supervision with which they may make decisions quickly and accurately. We know what a highly skilled job this is. At the moment, safeguards are in place—professionals work in teams in which they are able to get support and supervision—but we are concerned that that might not be the case in future. We would like to return to the matter on Report, but I would be grateful if the Minister would make some comments about it now.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

The amendment is pretty much the identical twin of amendment 4, which we have already discussed. It deals with the Secretary of State’s existing powers to publish guidelines about training. As I said regarding amendment 4, section 10 of the 2007 Act provides that the Secretary of State must publish guidelines about

“qualifications, experience or training…in relation to work involving the supervision of offenders and other work requiring direct contact with offenders (including offenders held in custody).”

Amendment 5, like amendment 4, would duplicate that existing statutory duty to publish guidelines about any required qualifications, experience or training, so it is unnecessary. I repeat a point I made in responding to amendment 4: it is not necessary to make such detailed operational guidance subject to parliamentary approval. Section 10 of the 2007 Act does not stipulate that guidelines on training should be subject to parliamentary approval, and we believe that that approach was the right one.

I can reassure the Committee that CRCs will not be free to use inexperienced or unsuitable staff to manage offenders. CRCs will be contractually required to have and maintain a suitably trained and competent work force. Potential providers will be asked to demonstrate in their bids how they will ensure that their staff are competent to carry out the work and manage the level of risk posed by offenders.

I conclude as I did in our debate on amendment 4: I consider the current duty under section 10 of the 2007 Act is sufficient, so I invite the hon. Lady to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Justice)

I will be happy to withdraw the amendment as I am—sort of—reassured by what the Minister says, given his reference to specific requirements under contracts. We will keep a close eye on this, however, and we will probably return to it on Report. The matter is of huge concern to the work force because they value highly the skills that they have gained over many years and they do not want the profession to be diminished in any way. However, I am happy to accept the Minister’s assurances for the time being, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Justice)

I beg to move amendment 37, in clause 14, page 12, line 29, at end add—

‘(3) This section may not come into force until such a time as the Secretary of State has piloted the provisions in one or more probation trust areas, and has laid before Parliament an independent evaluation of the pilot.’.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 38, in clause 22, page 18, line 32, at end insert—

‘(1A) Section 14 comes into force in accordance with section 14(3).’.

Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Justice)

We have covered this issue extensively—I was going to say “to death”—as it is something about which Opposition Members care passionately. We feel that the measures should be piloted. They were going to be piloted, but the pilots were cancelled. We have been over this several times, and we clearly disagree with the Government. I should therefore like to test the opinion of the Committee on the amendment because it addresses something that fundamentally divides us.

I will always be convinced that these measures should be tested. I anticipate, as do many others on both sides, that there will be significant problems as they are rolled out. Had we taken just a little more time and allowed the pilots to be completed, we could have put ourselves in a position whereby mistakes could be have been avoided. If the pilots had not been cancelled, they would be well on their way by now. I would like to test the opinion of the Committee on the amendment.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I am heartbroken that the hon. Lady has not even waited for my explanation before saying that she wants to press the amendment to a Division but, in any event, let me have a go.

Amendment 37 would require a pilot of the provisions in clause 14 and schedule 4 relating to responsible officers. Amendment 38 relates to the commencement clause of the Bill and is simply a reference back to the changes proposed in amendment 37. I understand what the hon. Lady is trying to get at, but there is some confusion about what amendment 37 is an attempt to do. Clause 14 is designed to deal with the current confusion caused by sections 197 and 198 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which created the role of the responsible officer for community orders and suspended sentence orders, and defined the functions of the responsible officer in delivering an order. Those provisions are complex and create uncertainty; for example, it is not clear under section 197 whether a responsible officer can change during the course of a sentence.

Section 198 of the 2003 Act includes the function of enforcing the requirements of a community order or suspended sentence, regardless of whether it is the public or another sector delivering the order. I remind members of the Committee that section 4 of Labour’s own Offender Management Act 2007 reserves the function of providing advice to courts to the public sector. However, that Act omitted to make the necessary changes to the role of the responsible officer to back that up. It is in fact to finish what the official Opposition started, while they were in government, that clause 14 and schedule 4 make changes to the responsible officer role and create a new enforcement officer role. Non-public sector providers will still be able to warn an offender for a first breach, but laying information before the court to initiate a breach hearing will be the responsibility solely of the public sector. I invite the hon. Lady to think again about amendment 37 before she chooses to vote on it in Committee, or returns to it on Report, because I am not sure it says what she thinks that it says.

I will not go through the arguments on piloting more generally again—we have heard them many times. Let me simply remind the Committee of what I said initially about how our reforms have been and will continue to be tested. We are working with 11 trusts between now and next spring to test key elements of the new model, including the new arrangements for dealing with breach of community orders and suspended sentence orders. Next spring, we will have the 21 community rehabilitation companies and the national probation service working alongside each other to deliver services. However, the CRCs will remain in public sector ownership for some months until the conclusion of the competition, which will provide further opportunities to test and refine the system. We therefore already have processes in place to test these changes, so I invite the hon. Lady to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Justice) 9:45 am, 3rd December 2013

I am afraid that I will not be withdrawing amendment 37. We are not convinced—we are not confused—and this is a point of principle for us. I was not reassured by the speech that the Minister read out, so I would like to test the opinion of the Committee.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 11.

Division number 8 Decision Time — Clause 14 - Officers responsible for implementing orders

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 11 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.