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I am delighted to be able to make a brief contribution. I am moved to do so by two things: by the tour de force of my hon. Friend Mr. Mitchell, and by the fact that I have always had a high regard for the Minister, about whose educational background I know more, thanks to my hon. Friend, than I did at the start of the debate.
The Home Office has form on this issue: the Government have suggested in recent times that forensic science and young offenders' institutions should be opened up to market contestability. But it stepped back slightly on those fields of endeavour, and I hope they will do so in respect of the probation service.
I repeat the question that I asked my hon. Friend the Minister last week at Home Office questions, which she may remember: do the Government think that any part of the management and apprehension of offenders has such a strong public service element that it should not be open to contestability and marketisation? I paraphrase my hon. Friend's reply, which was that as long as there was a public service element in the provision, she was indifferent about who was the provider.
There must come a point at which the public service element of something is so strong that all parties recoil from its being provided by a private company. I hope the Home Office would rule out plans for market contestability in the case of a magistrates clerk, a judge or a police officer, and the probation service is not very far from those core elements of our judicial system that have such a strong public service element. That there is not a well developed market and a rush of private providers coming forward to manage offenders suggests that there are some things in which the public service element is so strong that that is where the line should be drawn.
Across Government, the only model being provided is of the public sector being a commissioner and being indifferent to who the provider is, but time and again Ministers have to step back because of opposition, as they have had to do as a result of the situation in primary care trusts in the health service. I hope that my hon. Friend will do the same in respect of the probation service.
I want to add a little more force to some of the points made by other hon. Members. It could be said that the broad issue has been subject to consultation before, and the Government's defence is that a 12-week consultation period is therefore unnecessary, but these proposals are so radically different from anything that has been consulted on before that it would have shown a measure of good faith to have had a full, 12-week consultation.
In north Yorkshire, it is feared that there will no longer be a locally commissioned service and that what we have will be decided by regional or national bureaucrats. People are worried that there will be no local community or judicial input in the remaining local boards and trusts and that input will come mainly from business.
I shall be fascinated to hear what the two Opposition parties say about the politics of the proposal. If they announced that they would oppose the marketisation and privatisation of the probation service, they would kill the proposal and provide a great public service.
From my humble position on the Back Benches, which is likely to be permanent, I say to my hon. Friend that there are two ways to be a junior Minister: you can either keep your head down, carry out the brief and take instructions from whichever bright young thing happens to be in No. 10 Downing street, or you can exercise some political judgment. That is what I hope the Home Office has done in respect of the forensic science service, although I am not quite sure; I trust that it is pausing for reflection.
I have enough regard for the Minister to believe that she will not get into a political situation in which the Labour Government carry large numbers of measures only with support from the majority Opposition party, but that is her only hope of getting measures on this matter through the House. I hope that such is the descriptive potential of the proposal, and such is the feeling that a line must be drawn somewhere between the public and the private sector, that the Opposition parties will say today that they oppose it. I also hope that my hon. Friend will stage a stylish and managed retreat.