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Probation Service

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:36 am on 13th December 2005.

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Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 10:36 am, 13th December 2005

It is a great pleasure to congratulate Mr. Mitchell on securing this debate. He said what a good job the probation service had done, and he provided evidence to support that. That has been a consistent theme this morning; my hon. Friend Mr. Hollobone agreed with him, and so do I. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby remarked on the process of relentless change based on assertions without evidence, which seems to be the underlying motor of the changes that are proposed to the probation service. I was amused by his flights of fancy on the meaning of correctional services. I should report, for the record, that the hon. Gentleman is wearing red socks, if not a red tag.

I shall not take too much time because there is a history of Ministers not fully addressing the issues in answer to hon. Members who speak. Mrs. Curtis-Thomas remarked on 6 April that, during an earlier debate secured by David Taylor, concerns were not adequately addressed by the Minister. My hon. Friend Mrs. Gillan remarked that a letter dated 24 March 2005 did not fully answer all the questions raised in a debate on 16 March. Those are two examples; one in which a Minister had not been able to answer during the debate, and another in which a Minister was not able to answer in writing after the debate.

It is worth noting that, in the previous debate that took place on this matter, the Minister spoke for seven columns in Hansard, and only in the fifth column did he begin to address the points made by the hon. Member for Crosby. I cannot say whether this applies to the Under-Secretary, but some Ministers seem to take up too much time with bland and uncontroversial reiteration and never get on to the meat of the matter. That is why I do not propose to spend too much time on my remarks.

There are a number of issues to address, the most consistent of which, in previous debates, has been the disfranchisement of those who work for the probation service and the failure to adequately consult before implementing changes proposed by the Government. I shall not repeat those details, which were adequately set out on 6 April. However, despite ministerial promises of flexibility, the results of consultation always seem to end up much as they start.

I conclude that, regardless of responses from Ministers—among them Mr. Blunkett, who said that integration was best achieved at regional and local level—not all Ministers have enough clout to dissuade the national offender management system or civil servants from following a course that has been predetermined, presumably, somewhere further up the line. Mr. Grogan suggested that bright young things in No. 10 may be responsible for that. There will be brighter young things in No. 10 in the very near future, but I am sure that they will take much more account of the requirements and wishes of those who work in or are served by the public service.

Something about the consultation that surprised me was a letter of 7 November from the director of probation at the national probation service to NPS chief officers and chairs and national probation directorate regional managers, which told them:

"I am writing to you formally to remind you of your responsibilities in your roles as statutory office holders".

The letter continued:

"You should not engage in lobbying activity, you must not promulgate misinformation (e.g. contestability is privatisation) and you should avoid any action that might suggest that you are encouraging staff to lobby against government policy."

Thos instructions are being given to those who know most about the operation of the probation service. The Minister has some explaining to do about why it is unacceptable for those who know most to criticise the Government's policy on restructuring the probation service, when the Home Secretary invited those who know most to criticise the Opposition's policy on sentencing.

Promises have been sought in the past, and many either have not been given or have been given in such a form that they are not reliable. One of the most significant is the one about commissioning at local, not regional, level. Baroness Scotland recently put out a press release announcing that the measures outlined today would transfer the duty to provide probation services to the Home Secretary. He would then assign to national and regional offender managers, acting on his behalf, the task of contracting with a range of providers—public, private or voluntary and community—for the supply of probation services. There seems to be complete confusion between the expectations that Ministers—not least a former Home Secretary—have repeated time and again, that the service will be a local one, and statements now coming from the Home Office that it will be regional and national. Unless we get clarity over the way in which the service will be provided, no one will trust it.

A second area on which more information is needed is the timetable for the remaining contestability. Of course we need some of the changes, because prisons do not plug in with probation services, because people are released from prison half way through courses and because there is churning of prisoners, who are moved from one prison to another regardless. I was on the Education Committee and I saw exactly the same kind of things as those for which the National Audit Office has provided evidence. However, although I incline to favour contestability in privatisation, the Minister must concede that the explanations of why it is the right solution in the present case are unconvincing.

Finally, I should like the Minister to say more about evaluation. It is evident that inadequate evaluation has been carried out. Indeed, Mr. Gerrard cited the restructuring that took place in 2001. He said that it was designed to prevent fragmentation and to promote localism, yet there has been no evaluation of that restructuring to say "Yes, it works" or "No, it doesn't work". Instead, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby said, someone behind the grey walls of another place seems to be committed to a national structure.

As my hon. Friend Mr. Cameron said, we will support the Government when they are doing what is right. If and when we get the opportunity—I should still like to know when that will be—we would have no concern about voting for a well-worked out Bill that proposed a sensible solution. As I said, market testing can be effective, and contestability can drive standards up as well as, or instead of, driving costs down. However, there is no evidence for the cost savings that are said to be the consequence of the proposal.

The Government do not seem to have settled on their arguments. Even when they are doing what is right, we cannot support them if they are doing it in such a ham-fisted way. That is not to say that the situation is irretrievable. It is retrievable if the Minister listens to what is being said by hon. Members on both sides. I hope that she will listen and, more important, I hope that she will answer.