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Probation Service

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:50 am on 13th December 2005.

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Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 9:50 am, 13th December 2005

My hon. Friend says that this is the sixth occasion.

A number of years ago, we had a rational debate about how to reform the probation and prison services, integrated sentences, assessments and whatever support was required to ensure that offenders never reoffended. We also discussed how those things could be linked holistically with local authorities, social services departments and, in many instances, local primary care trusts to see what health care and other support was provided to offenders and their families.

That rational debate was led by the professionals in the field, including judges, magistrates and others in the judicial system. We also engaged with the police, prison officers and the probation service. Leading up to 2001, we were perhaps engaged in one of the most productive, rational debates on the issue for decades. It was a cross-party discussion, and a range of views were expressed about the service's performance up to that point and how we could improve it. That evidence-based discussion reflected the long experience of those in the service—as has been mentioned, the 100th anniversary is coming up—but it was also based on unemotional but committed discussion of how we served our community.

That is how the last reorganisation came about in 2001. We put together the national probation service and set up the national probation directorate. We were all committed to a multi-agency approach to tackling the problem of reoffending and to ensuring that the service was adequately resourced and based on professional, well-trained staff who were secure in the knowledge that they had the Government's support in the difficult task that they had to undertake.

That was the rational debate. What we have had since then would be farcical if, as my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby rightly said, the issue were not so serious. The Government have introduced half-baked proposals that have not been thought through and have launched new services almost monthly. I do not know how many times we have had press releases and press events to announce the launch of the National Offender Management Service. Staff have been appointed on fairly high salaries before legislation has even been passed to enable the service to be brought into operation. Services have been distributed around the country and given bizarre titles, from NOMS to ROMS to whatever.

For some reason, the process in which we engaged from 1997 to 2001 was abandoned and we went into a headlong rush, but towards what? Let us call it what it is: it is not contestability or best value that the Government have in mind, but straightforward privatisation. Probation officers and prison officers know what is coming at the end of the day. No matter how the Government dress things up and no matter what reasons they give regarding improvements to the service, we have not, as my hon. Friend said, seen any detailed analysis of the system as it now operates. We have seen no detailed research that has been accepted by the professionals in the field or by independent observers of how the system established in 2001 has operated. That is what is so disappointing about the Government's performance, and it is becoming an increasing source of anger and anguish among professionals who see the Government's proposals undermining their service.

I welcome the Home Secretary's recent publication—provided that the consultation is genuine. If it is, and we listen to the professionals in the field, we will return to a proposal based on co-operation and, as my hon. Friend said, largely on the Welsh or the Scottish model. That is a multi-agency approach that embodies local accountability and involves the people who deliver at the sharp end.