Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Probation Service

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

Alert me about debates like this

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

The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point. The lack of thorough evaluation is a major factor.

My third point concerns new Labour's naivety in business. It has a breathless enthusiasm for business terminology. We have heard the Home Secretary's comment about the "vibrant mixed economy", as if that were appropriate for a probation service. There is a statement in "Restructuring Probation to Reduce Re-offending" about winning business from the Secretary of State. One can almost sense his enthusiasm for playing big business.

I have a business background, and markets operate well where clear consumer pressure operates. Consumer markets operate on several different levels. They operate not only on price, but on people's experience of the product, on their perceptions of quality, on brand loyalty and, these days, on the ethics of the product. Without those consumer pressures, markets are reduced to being about contracts for price. Cost becomes the only significant factor.

Similarly, pseudo-markets in the NHS or the railways have not really operated as the Government expected them to because an individual passenger or patient cannot choose a particular rail company at a particular moment. They must take the train to London that turns up on the platform, just as they must be treated in the accident and emergency department to which they are sent. They do not have consumer choice in that sense. Likewise, offenders and victims will not be able to choose another probation service provider when they come to use the service or attempt to influence it.

This is a pseudo-market; it is not a market in the true sense. The market will not operate in the way in which the Government expect it to. I am not ideologically committed to state provision, but the business approach is not always right. Each case needs careful evaluation and thought.

As Mr. Grogan pointed out, even in business some core competencies are not outsourced. One must ask what the Government's core competencies are. The probation service would seem to me to be pretty close to being a core competency. Moreover, a new business approach would not be launched without a robust business plan and without plenty of evaluation having been undertaken. I have known plenty of large companies that would spend 10 years evaluating a new product or approach before launching it on the market. The Government could learn something from such an approach.

Finally, on centralisation, which I would call "de-localisation", my constituency is facing less-local hospital children's services and planning powers and a less-local ambulance trust, fire control centre, police force and primary care trust. We even face a less-local strategic health authority, and the probation service is now to be added to that list. In the end, the provision of probation services in my constituency will depend on the whim of the Secretary of State. Either it is a huge coincidence that all the evidence about all those different services happens to point in the same direction or some other underlying reason is behind the Government's rush to de-localise services. That reason may be more about saving money.

Hon. Members and the National Association of Probation Officers have listed many practical problems. A conflict of interest arises when private companies advise courts on sentences and parole decisions, because those companies must weigh up their commercial interest and a duty to their shareholders against the public interest. There is the problem of sensitive personal data on offenders and victims being handed to multiple data processors. There is an impact on youth offending teams, on police and on local social services, which may need to deal with multiple providers of probation services in their area. We must also consider the impact of the different cultures of the police and probation service within the National Offender Management Service, which has not yet had time to bed in.

There is an overall recurring theme of restructuring, rather than examination of the underlying problems and attempts to improve the quality of work. There is short-termism in restructuring before proper evaluation. There is naivety about business provision and business terminology, and there is delocalisation.

In Scotland, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Labour has had to find a different approach. After much careful thought, a different route has been taken. I suggest to the Minister that, instead of risking more crime and, possibly, more lost lives, she and her Government should, for once, think again, take time, take advice and take the right decision.