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Probation Service

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:25 am on 13th December 2005.

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Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Liberal Democrat, Cheltenham 10:25 am, 13th December 2005

I congratulate Mr. Mitchell on securing the debate. His instinct for the ethos of girls' public schools is surprisingly spot-on. Cheltenham ladies college is, of course, in my constituency, and I can tell him that the researcher, Elizabeth Poston, who prepared me for this debate, was recently at that college and is just as alarmed as he is by some of the proposals. Perhaps the Minister is out of kilter on this issue.

I do not doubt the Government's sincerity in wanting to reduce reoffending and crime, which are critical issues, but that makes it even more important and critical that we get this right. The Government's proposals run the risk of making some of the classic errors of new Labour projects, such as seeking solutions in restructuring rather than in quality of work. Other examples include their short-termism, their naivety about business—I say that as someone who has a background in both business and the voluntary sector—and their instinct for centralisation or, at the very least, delocalisation.

I shall take those issues one by one. First, I shall address the practice of seeking solutions in reorganisation. I made this point in a surprisingly similar debate on police restructuring. Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary was supposedly there to improve the performance of constabularies, yet the solution appeared instead to be in restructuring. Similarly, the probation service has Her Majesty's inspectorate of probation, the purpose of which—in case the Minister has forgotten—includes contributing to improved performance in the NPS, NOMS and youth offending teams, and contributing to sound policy and effective service delivery by providing advice. Perhaps the Minister can tell us: has HMIP so failed in that duty that we have to abolish the existing probation service, or has it recommended the change? I know that the Carter report suggested it, but has there been any recommendation from the inspectorate that these changes should take place? I trawled its website this morning and found no such recommendation.

There are better ways to try to improve reoffending rates, such as the better enforcement of licences, making sure that breaches in community service orders are more rigorously pursued and better education. The National Audit Office recently delved into the area of reoffending, and it, too, failed to recommend any kind of restructuring on this scale, but recommended considering education. It said that it is clear that overcrowding in prisons is disrupting attempts at reducing reoffending through education, and recommended shorter modular education courses that can be standardised across establishments to minimise disruption. It also suggested arranging for relevant education records to be transferred when a prisoner is moved, or introducing evening or weekend courses in local prisons to increase learning opportunities for prisoners. We know that the high level of functional illiteracy and lack of numeracy among prisoners contributes to reoffending. The NAO accepts that link, yet we are not giving time for its recommendations to be accepted and acted on. Therefore, we are rushing into a restructuring solution.

The social exclusion unit—another Government body—has identified housing stability as an important issue in patterns of reoffending. There is the possibility of looking at more joined-up operations without this kind of restructuring between youth offending teams, the police, the National Offender Management Service, local authorities, and voluntary sector services such as drug rehabilitation services. There are even simple solutions such as the branding and presentation of information and the way in which services are presented, and the recent example of community service teams being rebranded as community payback teams, which is welcome, I suppose, if it is about trying to emphasise the importance of the victim's role in community rehabilitation and community service provision. There are lots of things that the Government could consider, but they have opted instead for a structural solution, as they are doing with the police. There is an equal chance that that may go wrong.

The second issue that I shall address is short-termism. Many hon. Members have mentioned that the probation service in its current form was put in place as recently as 2001; indeed, NOMS was set up only last year. We have the model of the health service in which primary care groups were set up and were, in theory, being piloted, but were abolished before they had even finished their pilots. We then had the primary care trusts, which were established only in 2001, but they are now being abolished and restructured on a grand scale. The Countryside Agency was set up and abolished by the same Government. We have the repeated terrorist legislation—every time there is a major atrocity we seem to produce fresh anti-terrorism legislation urgently. The Government's knee-jerk reaction is to attempt to tackle each new alarming set of statistics or findings through restructuring or new legislation. Instead, they should allow the reforms that they have already introduced, and which we may support in many respects, the time to bed in. They should wait to see whether those reforms are working and then evaluate them properly. Several hon. Members have mentioned lack of evaluation.