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Probation Service

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:06 am on 13th December 2005.

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Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow 10:06 am, 13th December 2005

I am grateful to my hon. Friend Mr. Mitchell for introducing the debate. In the light of the consultation paper that came out recently, it is important that we have this debate. My hon. Friend John McDonnell says that we have had six debates on the National Offender Management Service. We have certainly had five or six, but one thing that has been true of all the debates is that they have taken place in Westminster Hall. What we have not had, and what we should have had, on the proposed major restructuring of the service is a debate in the main Chamber of the House of Commons.

I suspect that one consequence of having the debates as Adjournment debates in Westminster Hall is that quite a number of hon. Members are not fully aware of what is happening and what is proposed. When they do find out, the Government will find that there is considerable opposition to what is happening. Previously, when a major rally was held in Central Hall Westminster by the probation officers' union—the National Association of Probation Officers—many hon. Members were contacted by their local probation services and they then gave clear support to those services in what they were saying. Exactly the same thing will happen if a Bill is introduced in the new year and we have a debate in the main Chamber of the House of Commons.

As has been said, it is difficult to understand the rationale for what is happening. We are dealing with a service that was reorganised only in 2001. Among the major reasons that the Government gave at that time for the reorganisation and the creation of the national probation service was that the existing structures were fragmented and unaccountable. That was the argument for creating the present structure. The consultation paper issued before the 2001 reorganisation talked about having too many autonomous units free to deploy resources from central Government, limited accountability and a lack of democratic accountability at local level. It was also argued that fragmentation inhibited efficiency and did not provide value for money.

Having said all that in 2001 and created the national service, the Government now seem to be going in exactly the opposite direction. One would assume that if a service had been restructured in 2001 and it was thought necessary four years later to come back and do something else, there would be shoals of evidence for the failure of the 2001 restructuring, and of the service not having performed or delivered. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington pointed out, all the statistics say that the probation service is performing better than it has for many years. If that is happening, what is the rationale behind tearing up the structure that has been in existence for only four years?

During those four years, many other changes have happened, which have had to be coped with. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 changed sentencing, with community sentences and the new custodial sentences, and that has added a considerable amount to the probation case load. Even so, there is no evidence that the probation service has not met all its targets. In the most recently published report, the national probation directorate said that the results were better than at any stage since the national probation service was created, and they were expected to get better still.

Nobody is suggesting that everything that needs to be done to deal with offenders has to be done by the probation service. There is already co-operative work going on, involving the voluntary, not-for-profit sector. Many of the current drugs rehabilitation projects are run through voluntary sector organisations. However, if we go down the road of contestability, it will be a problem not only for the probation service, but for the voluntary, not-for-profit sector, which will be in the same business of facing risks, and needing spare capacity to make bids. Some smaller voluntary sector organisations have told us that they are concerned that, after the changes that are now envisaged, they will be squeezed out of work that they can currently do with local probation wards and services.

Nobody is arguing that there should not be a multi-agency approach; nobody has a problem with the idea of partnership between a range of statutory and voluntary organisations. Nobody has any difficulties with that. However, the issue of contestability destroys that co-operative working, and some of the arguments that have been advanced about the need to bring in privatisation—because that is what it is—have cited what has happened in the Prison Service, and have argued that the effect of privatisation in the Prison Service has been to drive up standards. If one looks at where privatisation has happened in prison administration in the last 10 to 15 years, the private sector has only ever had brand new prisons to manage. It has never had to face dealing with Victorian prisons with serious overcrowding, or with the prisons that have had the biggest problems. It is the public sector that has raised the standards in prisons with the most serious problems, not the private sector. By and large, the private sector has had the easy bits of the Prison Service to deal with.