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Probation Service

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 13th December 2005.

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Photo of Austin Mitchell Austin Mitchell Labour, Great Grimsby 9:30 am, 13th December 2005

Again, apart from his point about Grimsby, my hon. Friend hits the nail on the head, and I am grateful to him for hitting all the nails that I have left standing in my harangue.

The scrapping of the reorganisation of the service is an invitation to create conflicts of interest, as I said. It is also an end to community co-operation, because the boards in effect manage community co-operation. Will a commercial organisation do that? I doubt it. The Home Office says that it will create a vibrant mixed economy in probation services locally. That is the sort of nonsense that Ministers talk when they have nothing to say.

The probation trusts will be run by businessmen who will not be able to secure local co-operation, and will not include magistrates, as the current bodies do. They will not have the same roots in the community. Their roots will be in profit and value for money. That is a deeply unattractive picture, because there will be fear, uncertainty, and a feeling of betrayal in the probation service, whose work the Government should be praising and encouraging. They should be inspecting it, too, but they should praise and encourage it because it has been so successful. Saying that it works well does not mean that it cannot be improved, but everyone agrees that it is improving. The proposal, however, is the reward that it is being given for making those efforts to improve.

The picture is so unattractive that I hope that the Minister has noticed that Scotland, the land of Rebus and substantial crime levels, has rejected the proposal in favour of community co-operation made statutory. We could and should do the same. I should add that the National Assembly for Wales does not want a bar of the proposal.

My hon. Friend the Minister has wide experience of custodial institutions; I understand that she went to Cheltenham ladies college, the potting shed of the English rose. She also has a history of violence. In exchanges about the shortening of the hours of Parliament, she threatened to break my arm. I have not told anyone that before apart from my wife, who was deeply hurt; she said that if anyone was going to break my arm for not voting for the proposals, it would be her, not the Minister. The Minister comes from that background, so why are we leaping in the dark? Surely it is not the ethos of Cheltenham ladies college to go leaping in the dark. That sounds very reprehensible.

Why are the Government opting for an untried, untested pot-pourri of confusing theories based on business efficiency? Why do they not build on the service's steady improvement instead of abandoning it? Why are they going for an untested, untried model?

The regulatory impact assessment that was published on 1 November is a disgrace to any Government that is concerned with the efficiency of the service. It is required for public consultation, but no bank would lend money on the quantifiable aspects of it. It is the shabbiest regulatory impact assessment that I have ever seen. It asserts that there will be efficiency savings of between 3 per cent. and 8.5 per cent. Where? How? It says that it will cut costs and will save £625 million. Where? How? What is the proof? Where will that saving come from? Consider the history of the private sector in saving money for the Home Office. Morrisons took over the hostels that the probation service uses and the costs have gone up by 62 per cent., yet we are told that there will be a saving from this change. The private sector also took over the management of probation premises. Their costs are up 35 per cent.

The Home Office has no experience, no effectiveness and no skill in dealing with the private sector; consider the inordinate profits being made by the tagging companies out of a fairly minor and easy-to-run area of business. What investment will be made in training under the new system? Will the emphasis be purely on profits? One cannot calculate a rate of return on a community service that is dealing with redemption; as opposed to saving people's souls, it is saving their futures in a society in which there are successes and failures. Some things are tough to achieve, and it is impossible to calculate a return rate on that kind of service, but the Government propose to do exactly that.