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I beg to move amendment 27, in schedule 4, page 30, line 35, at end insert—
‘(1A) When a matter is referred to an enforcement officer under paragraph 5(1)(b) or 6(1) the matter should be dealt with within 24 hours of the referral.’.
You will be pleased to hear, Ms Dorries, that I shall speak very briefly to these short but none the less important amendments, which deal with proposed breach proceedings—[ Interruption. ] I think that being in the room is a risk to my health, given all the coughing going on. I am getting a bit nervous in my old age.
It is difficult enough to make out what I am saying without my speaking through a face mask.
To return to serious business, it is essential in my view—I am sure that I speak for others—that procedures are carried out swiftly. I therefore propose that a provider of private probation services must refer immediately to the enforcement officer following the discovery of any alleged breach, and that that should be done within a working day, excluding weekends, in all cases, if confidence in the provider is to be upheld. This is an important point—it might be an obvious one as well—because breaches can be extremely dangerous. A person may suddenly decide that he or she does not want to comply, meaning that all bets are off and we are back in a very awkward situation. I do not think it is unreasonable that the supervisor should make any alleged breach, as he or she sees it, known to the enforcement officer within 24 hours. It should be incumbent on the enforcement officer that the matter of the breach should be dealt with and referred to a court within 24 hours of him or her receiving it, which would ensure that all matters would be dealt with swiftly.
In some cases, the breach will be for a fairly serious matter, so it will be essential that it is dealt with without delay if public protection issues are involved. If the whole scheme is to be transparent, and if it is to have judicial and, crucially, public confidence, the process must be carried out quickly. There should not be a long time lag before a breach is referred to an enforcement officer, nor before the enforcement officer takes the matter back to court. There will certainly be concerns among the magistracy if a breach is presented by somebody who does not have overall responsibility for supervision, as they may wish to ask questions of the person directly responsible. However, I will not go further into that debate now, as the Minister reassured us last week that there is nothing to prevent a court, if it deems it necessary, from summoning a supervisor to give oral evidence at a hearing.
My right hon. Friend understates the importance of the amendments. They are extremely important because Opposition Members are concerned about the possible fragmentation arising from these reforms and changes to the probation service. It is essential that the magistracy has confidence in breach proceedings and that the system has credibility with the offender. Does he agree that any gap between enforcement and supervision would be very detrimental?
My right hon. Friend is right. He brings to the Committee his ministerial experience of seeing at first hand how these things should work. To bolster his point, there might be a fairly serious breach and the person on the receiving end, to put it crudely, might believe that he or she could be going away for 14 days. If there is a delay, the person who has breached will run for it, so it will be necessary to find that person and bring them back to court, which will involve the police and all the other services. It is therefore essential that action is taken quickly, without any delay. The amendments are quite reasonable. A responsibility to report within 24 hours and to seek a court hearing within 24 hours of the enforcement officer receiving it is not especially heavy.
I anticipate that the Minister will say that this will be a matter for internal regulation in the service as it develops. However, it is more important than that, given that we are putting in place a system that must command public confidence. Crucially, the magistracy and the Crown courts will want to know that these things are being dealt with swiftly and without undue delay. Frankly, I do not think that this matter should be left to internal agreement between the enforcement and the supervisory sides. It is important that we have this debate now, which is why I want the amendments in the Bill.
I talked about the need for confidence among the magistracy and credibility with offenders. Does not my right hon. Friend agree that it is important that the public have confidence and know that, whether it is regarding community punishment or post-release supervision, there is no delay between a breach by someone and the proceedings starting?
Absolutely. The driving feature of the Bill is the fact that the under-12 month cohort will now be dealt with effectively. If they are going to be dealt with effectively, they must be dealt with swiftly, sensibly and with due regard for circumstances. The process must be swift because otherwise the public will start to think that they have been sold a pup and that there is no system to deal quickly with potential breaches. Such speed is also crucial to ensure that other offenders are warned of what will happen if they breach without reasonable cause.
I support the amendments. We think the public are being sold a pup with this programme of reform. The reasons for that, as have been identified, are escalating risk and problems with communication. We know that probation officers sometimes do not have confidence that the systems with which they are provided make such communication possible now. However, as they all know about their problems with IT, they are able to circumvent them in various ways. As they work together and know each other, and as they are all using the same systems and have established protocols, they are able to get around the glitches that occur from time to time, but that is unlikely to be the case under new arrangements. The right hon. Gentleman has rightly identified communication as one of the Bill’s key problems. If he wished to press his amendment to a Division today or on Report, we would happily support him.
Let me deal first with amendment 27. As the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd explained, it would require an enforcement officer, who must of course be an officer of a public sector provider—in practice the national probation service—to deal with a breach referral from a responsible officer within 24 hours. It is worth making the point that the way the amendment is phrased does not place any requirement on the supervisor to refer the case to the enforcement officer within any particular time limit; it would place a time limit on the public sector enforcement officer. Having said that, I welcome his desire to ensure that enforcement of supervision conditions is timely. However, let me set out some practical difficulties with the amendment.
First, it is not clear what the requirement to deal with the referral means. If a CRC alleges that an offender has breached a requirement of their community order and reports that to the national probation service, there are a number of actions that the service can take. It may conclude that there has been no breach, or it may decide that laying information is appropriate and initiate court action.
As I have said, it will be essential that the NPS comes to its own view of the appropriate action on breach. Indeed, the Bill’s provisions place that duty on it. That might mean asking a CRC for further information or reports on the alleged breach. It will not be feasible to carry out such an assessment—and, if necessary, to lay information before a court—in every case within 24 hours.
If the NPS received a breach pack on a Friday afternoon, it would not be able to comply with the amendment, as its effect is not restricted to business hours. The amendment would therefore place a statutory duty on the public sector probation service that I suspect it would—frequently, and for understandable reasons—not be in a position to meet. To make sure that existing high performance on the conclusion of breach proceedings is maintained, we will ensure that the CRCs and the NPS work to the same time scales that now exist in national standards, but in a way that ensures that the NPS has sufficient time to undertake a full review of the alleged breach before a summons is issued.
As the right hon. Gentleman says, timely enforcement action is important. That is why it is included in national standards. The current standards set out that a breach action, if there appears to be no reasonable excuse, should be initiated with a court no later than the end of the 10th working day following failure to comply. I hope that he will be reassured by that, since I think it is a better measure on which to hold the new national probation service to account.
I hope that I can deal briefly with amendment 28, which would place a duty on the Secretary of State to provide enough enforcement officers to lay information before the courts in regard to breach, because such a statutory duty already exists. Section 2(1) of the Offender Management Act 2007 states:
Section 1 of the 2007 Act defines “the probation purposes” as including providing advice to the courts when making decisions
“in respect of persons…convicted of offences”.
That duty will remain under our reforms, so given that a wider-ranging duty already exists in statute, the amendment is unnecessary.
The Minister is doing a good job of trying to expose what he believes are the deficiencies in the amendment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, but he is not explaining in detail what steps he is taking to ensure that the existing high standards can be maintained. The crucial point is that when a decision to breach is made at present, it is taken within one organisation. In future, it will require officers from two different organisations—a private provider and the national probation service—to dovetail together a process that will be speedy, swift and fair. Will he set out in a little more detail how those two organisations will work together?
The right hon. Gentleman and I have discussed before, in Committee and elsewhere, the importance of communication in the new arrangements. It will be important that both CRC and NPS employees work together to ensure communication is swift and effective, which is what we expect. Although he says that such decisions are currently being taken within one organisation, it does not follow that they are being made by one individual. An enforcement officer, someone making a decision on breach, will often not be the same as the offender supervisor, so a need for information to transfer between individuals already exists. That information will still need to be transferred, and we want to ensure that communication channels are effective. It will be necessary to do that not only for this purpose, but also for the system more broadly to work as effectively as we would want. To give him what reassurance I can, the same standards and expectations that apply now in the process of breach will apply under the new regime. I recognise what the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd is attempting to do, but the amendment has some practical difficulties.
The Minister knows that the Opposition are interested in the issue. When I pressed him on Second Reading, he said that he expected teams to be working together and sharing offices. That came as a bit of a surprise to those working in probation, because they do not know where those offices will be and are unsure as to how that will work in practice. Is it actually the case that teams will be sharing offices or is that more of an aspiration?
They certainly will be sharing offices as of 1 April, because that is arrangement that will persist after the initial split between CRCs and the NPS. After that, it will be up to those on the ground to decide on the most effective arrangement. It really should not come as a surprise to her that we believe that co-location is sensible for such interaction. The Secretary of State has spoken about it many times, and it has always been a part of his vision of how the system should work. As I said, perhaps the hon. Lady was not here, the Secretary of State’s vision has come under some pretty heavy fire from Opposition Members, but if they were listening carefully to what he said, they would have picked up the point a long time ago.
On amendment 28, I am reassured by what the Minister says about the duty already existing in section 2(1) of the Offender Management Act 2007. I think, however, that we need to discuss amendment 27 further. I will seek to withdraw it, but I intend to return to its purport on Report. I hope we will have a longer and deeper debate at that stage, because this is a crucial matter. That is not to say that the Minister was in any way deficient, but perhaps we need a longer debate and a bit more information about how it will work. I seek the Committee’s leave to withdraw amendment 27 and I will not press amendment 28, but if I am able to do so I will return to amendment 27 on Report.