Offender Management Bill

– in a Public Bill Committee am ar 11 Ionawr 2007.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Ceidwadwyr, Hexham 9:00, 11 Ionawr 2007

On two housekeeping points, I remind hon. Members that adequate notice should be given of amendments and that, as a general rule, my fellow Chairman and I do not intend to call starred amendments. I also remind hon. Members to switch off their mobile phones and pagers in Committee.

We come first to the programme motion, debate on which may continue for up to half an hour.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I beg to move,


(1) the Committee shall (in addition to its first meeting at 9.00 a.m. on Thursday 11th January) meet—

(a) at 2.00 p.m. on Thursday 11th January;

(b) at 10.30 a.m. and 4.30 p.m. on Tuesday 16th January;

(c) at 9.00 a.m. and 2.00 p.m. on Thursday 18th January;

(d) at 10.30 a.m. and 4.30 p.m. on Tuesday 23rd January;

(e) at 9.00 a.m. and 2.00 p.m. on Thursday 25th January;

(2) the proceedings shall be taken in the following order: Clauses 1 to 4; Schedule 1; Clauses 5 to 7; Schedule 2; Clauses 8 to 31; Schedules 3 to 5; Clauses 32 to 34; new Clauses, new Schedules, remaining proceedings on the Bill;

(3) the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 4.00 p.m. on Thursday 25th January.

Good morning to you, Mr. Atkinson, and to the members of the Committee. I am delighted to be serving under your esteemed chairmanship and I look forward to the good-natured and effective way in which you will steer us through our deliberations, along with your co-Chairman, Mr. Bayley. I am in no doubt that we will have constructive debates on the key issues and I welcome the detailed scrutiny that we shall give the Bill.

I welcome the hon. and learned Member for Harborough and look forward to his valuable contributions. On Second Reading he said that he would chivvy the Government along, so we look forward to that. I also welcome the hon. Member for Cheadle, who will speak from the Liberal Democrat Benches, and all members of the Committee. I hope that they will agree that the programme motion gives us the proper time to enable scrutiny of this small but significant Bill and an opportunity to ease in the newly revised legislative procedures for Committee stages, which will affect the Bills introduced in the new year.

I am sure that we agree that probation is a crucial service, vital for public protection. I salute the hard work, dedication and professionalism of probation staff around the country. Much progress has been made in  the past few years, but we cannot afford to shy away from the fact that we have still not managed to make a sufficient impact on the most crucial outcome: reducing reoffending. We now need to harness all the resources at our disposal to ensure that those who have the right skills and expertise, whether they are in the public, private or voluntary sector, can contribute to the management of offenders.

We remain committed to a strong public sector probation service, but it is clear that the public sector cannot and should not do all that needs to be done on its own. By removing current statutory restrictions, the Bill will give all sectors the freedom to innovate in partnership. Part 1 will place on the Secretary of State statutory duties to make arrangements with others for the provision of probation services and to create probation trusts as the public sector providers, with which he will make contracts. It will also require him to consult on how he proposes to commission probation services. The consultation will be conducted regionally and result in the delivery of services better targeted to meet the specific needs of local communities and the sentencing requirements of local courts.

Part 2 will improve offender management by strengthening the offence of bringing contraband into prison and removing some of the inconsistencies between the powers of staff in public and private prisons. Part 3 will make various technical amendments to improve delivery in the youth justice sector.

I know that there are contentious matters in the Bill, and I look forward to the opportunity to explain more fully its purpose and details. I will listen carefully to hon. Members throughout our deliberations, and if improvements can be made we will consider them. I know that the issues are detailed but I welcome the opportunity for a constructive debate that the programme motion gives us.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I join the Minister in welcoming you to our deliberations, Mr. Atkinson, and I thank him for his welcome. I do not have much of substance to say on the programme motion, save to say that if the Minister is required to return to Marsham street for urgent discussions about his future or that of any other Minister, we will give him such leeway as is required. He need not come back if he does not need to.

Photo of Mark Hunter Mark Hunter Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

It is pleasure to have the opportunity to speak for the Liberal Democrats under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. I, too, look forward to what I hope will be a genuinely good-natured debate.

We are dealing with some hugely important issues here. We would all agree that there are genuine concerns about reoffending rates. It is acknowledged by the public that more needs to be done to improve the situation. I am looking forward to seeing what more the Minister will add to this. Although we approach this with an open mind, we must not throw the baby out with the bath water in our attempt to improve the situation of both the probation service and the Prison Service. An awful lot of committed professionals are involved in both those services and we should not forget that during our deliberations today.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Ceidwadwyr, Hexham

We now move to the second motion. I call the Minister to move the motion to report written evidence. This is a formality whereby any written evidence that the Committee accepts enjoys the benefit of parliamentary privilege.

Motion made and Question proposed,

That, subject to the discretion of the Chairman, any written evidence received by the Committee shall be reported to the House for publication.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

This may well be a formal motion in the Government’s mind and although, on the face of it, it is fairly uncontroversial, it may hide a plethora of issues that need to be discussed, not least in light of the change in the parliamentary procedural rules which was introduced by the Government just before Parliament prorogued in late October. The Leader of the House introduced into the rules of the House a procedure whereby Bill Committees could receive evidence in a manner rather akin to the way in which Select Committees have been receiving evidence until now. A Committee such as this could therefore call witnesses and papers and, in light of both that written and oral evidence, reach a better judgment about the shape of the Offender Management Bill and the policy and the intent behind it.

On Second Reading on 11 December, at column 584 of Hansard, I intervened on the Home Secretary to ask whether he would ask his hon. Friends and the usual channels to permit this Committee to take evidence. Of course he said no, in his usual charming way. It is interesting that this is a highly controversial Bill. Part 1, at least, is highly controversial. It has attracted huge public concern and huge concern from those who work in all sections of the criminal justice system such as the police, the Prison Service, the probation service and the courts, and from both informed and uninformed politicians.

It strikes me that the decision by the Home Secretary on the Floor of the House to refuse this Committee the chance to take evidence has been somewhat mitigated by the Minister’s formal moving of this motion and the fact that he has given notice

“of his intention to move a motion in the terms of the Programming Sub-Committee” so that this Committee can receive written evidence and so that it should be reported to the House. I understand that that is to enable such written evidence as he receives to be covered by parliamentary privilege and therefore immune from defamation suit. As a defamation lawyer I find that deeply disturbing: as one pocket fills, the other empties, but I shall bear that with as much fortitude as I can muster.

What does concern me is that this appears to be, if not a volte-face, at least a slight change in the Government’s attitude to the receiving of evidence by this Committee. I have a helpful solution to the dilemma we find ourselves in and it is one that should be attractive to the Government. I know that the Government wish to expose their inner thinking to the world. We know that from the numerous leaks that their assistants give to the press and to us.

We also know that the Government are hugely reinforced by their own self-confidence—everything that they say is right and everything that they intend to  do is in the national interest, so they have no fear whatsoever of being exposed to public scrutiny. I want, therefore, to help the Government to perform their role as an open Government, a collection of candid individuals who want to see their policies explained fully. I want this Committee to take part in that process of holding the Government to account, and I want to ensure that the evidence that we receive is not confined to that produced by the Government but includes evidence produced by other interested bodies which is relevant to our deliberations.

When, on 11 December, the Home Secretary refused my suggestion, which I naively thought was entirely reasonable, I had a little think with my hon. Friends and we decided to hold our own evidence session. Yesterday, we held a session in the Thatcher Room at Portcullis House to which all members of this Committee were invited—even you, Mr. Atkinson, although for obvious reasons you thought it inappropriate to attend. Certainly all Committee members on both the Government and the Opposition Benches were invited. Sadly, yesterday the Minister and other members of the Home Office team were very busy looking for things.

We called Lord Ramsbotham, the retired general who was Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons from the late 1990s until about 2003, and Martin Narey, the former director-general of the Prison Service, then the chief executive of the National Offender Management Service and now the chief executive of Barnardo’s, the children’s charity. Thirdly, we called Dr. David Green, the director of the policy think-tank Civitas. Those three individuals gave some very useful evidence that touched directly on the Bill.

Because our committee was not set up by Parliament—it did not replicate this Committee and it was not staffed by Officers of the House—it was not a parliamentary committee. Because of that, by the rules of the House, the Serjeant would not allow us to use Hansard reporters or to make use of any form of recording system belonging to the House or its authorities. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, however, so we decided to record it ourselves, privately. It was an open meeting, but we funded and provided the means of recording the evidence.

The session started at about half-past 9 and went on until about a quarter to 12. The evidence is on a compact disc; it is not in writing. I hope that the Committee will agree that that valuable evidence should not be allowed to remain metaphorically within the Thatcher Room. Rather, the Committee should invite the Chairman either to authorise himself or to invite the Committee to ask the House as a whole to permit the evidence that was taken yesterday—from Lord Ramsbotham and Martin Narey in particular but also, if necessary, from Dr. Green—to be transcribed from the compact disc so that it can be presented in written form to the Committee as the Minister, at least in part, would wish.

The evidence that Lord Ramsbotham and Martin Narey gave yesterday would be extremely useful to the development of the Bill. It would provide a useful context in which we could frame our deliberations, although it might mean that we had to delay the end date of the Committee proceedings to enable ourselves to receive or understand the information. Although  that might not be wholly agreeable to all members of the Committee—I see the Government Whip nodding in disagreement, in true inscrutable form—it would increase public confidence in the way that legislation is made in this House. Far too often, we rush through legislation that is insufficiently scrutinised, for all sorts of good, bad and indifferent reasons, and rely on the other place to do the real work of revision, amendment and scrutiny. I suspect that the public feels that it is disconnected from the proper making of legislation.

I suggest that the Committee should permit the transcription and receipt of the evidence on the compact disc, in line with the Minister’s motion. If the Minister is not prepared to agree that the Committee should do so, it is reasonable that the evidence should be made available as a public service at public expense. I therefore look to the Minister, as the current representative of the Home Office in the Room, to agree to the handing over to the Home Office—this is actually quite a brave suggestion—of the compact disc, on his undertaking that he will not lose it, put it in a drawer and leave it there for 10 years, or do something else careless with it. If the Home Office is distrustful of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat pact, it should have the evidence transcribed at its own expense and made public. I am relaxed about the means by which the evidence is brought into the public domain, as I am sure that the Minister is, given that he has plenty of other things on his mind to make his life less relaxing.

I am making a double-headed but none the less reasonable suggestion. The Minister frequently tells us that he is a reasonable man, which I accept, and I cannot believe that he will find it a disobliging suggestion. It will bring Parliament more in line with the public’s desire to know what is going on inside Parliament and will not only enhance the reputation of the Bill Committee system, but will allow the possibility, if not the certainty, of the deliberations of the Committee proceeding with even greater speed. If we receive in written form the evidence given yesterday, neither we nor the public will have to sit in Committee to read it. The receipt of the information in writing will allow us to sit less often, which would be to the advantage of the Government, who have plenty on their plate, and of the Minister, who I know is itching to get back to Marsham street to see what the hell is going on.

Photo of Mark Hunter Mark Hunter Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 9:15, 11 Ionawr 2007

I shall be brief, I hope not for the last time in these proceedings. I support the view of the hon. and learned Gentleman, who has made an eminently reasonable point. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to start the proceedings in a spirit of co-operation and good nature, and that he will demonstrate his commitment to openness by admitting the evidence. As one of the Members who attended yesterday, I have to say that Members of this House and the other place found it an extremely useful opportunity to question three recognised expert witnesses. It would be a good start to the debate for the Minister to give a positive reaction to the request that has been made. It would it be rather churlish not to do so, and I cannot see any earthly reason why he should not, although he may wish to introduce one.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Ceidwadwyr, Hexham

Order. For the sake of clarification of the record, I want to make it clear that neither the Chair nor the Committee has the power to authorise the transcription of this material. It is simply up to the Minister or the Government to do so or not.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Thank you, Mr. Atkinson, for that explanation of the Committee’s responsibilities. I am always a little concerned when an Opposition spokesman says that he wants to help me, because it is not always to my advantage to take that help. However, I think that it might be on this occasion.

There are a number of matters on which I want to respond to the hon. and learned Member for Harborough. The hon. and learned Gentleman has commented on the Home Secretary’s position in rejecting the oral evidence to the Committee on 11 December, which was in line and in keeping with the agreement that was reached in the House that new Bills would follow that procedure in the new year. He knows that the Second Reading of this Bill was in December. The Home Secretary rejected the oral evidence to the Committee, because there was a starting point for the process and the procedure.

I part company a little with the hon. and learned Gentleman on the usual channels. We have three very competent Whips in the Committee who will deal with the Committee’s business in terms of its timescale very adequately, so I do not want to stray into their area of responsibility. However, I am interested in yesterday’s evidence session and might have had a view about who was invited to give evidence. None the less, the three people to whom the hon. and learned Gentleman has referred are distinguished in relation to this subject.

There is no danger of members of the Committee not receiving written evidence from a range of participants. The Carter report was published in December 2003; a Government response was published in January 2004; NOMS itself was established by Mr. Narey in June 2004; and the Management of Offenders and Sentencing Bill was introduced in January 2005.

Many people have been heavily involved throughout the process. The stakeholders have views about the Government’s direction of travel and their own personal views about how things are taking place. I believe that it is helpful to the Committee to get as much information as possible about those issues in the way mentioned by the hon. Member for Cheadle to allow us to discuss the outcomes in detail. These are serious matters to our communities and to people who work in the various services that we are discussing.

I will go this far and say that I will ask my officials and the Home Office to speak to the House authorities. I do not want to do anything that will prejudice any future position. However, I am happy to accede to the hon. and learned Gentleman’s request to get the CD transcribed.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to the Minister for his speedy and favourable response to that suggestion. May I ask him to be a little more forthcoming about what he had in mind when he moved the motion this morning? Written evidence means nothing unless it relates to particular pieces of evidence. For example, as  he has said, the Government received 748 responses to the consultation process, but, as I understand it, only 10 of those favoured the Government line. There are therefore 738 responses which did not find favour with the Government. Are we likely to receive that sort of evidence from the Government or from elsewhere, or do the Government have other pieces of written evidence in mind?

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The hon. and learned Gentleman has strayed into an area that I am sure that we will return to in terms of the various consultations that have taken place and the different viewpoints that exist. As far as I am concerned—I am sure that the Committee will tell me if I am wrong—this motion is about evidence that the Committee receives in writing, which it does on occasions, from, for example, interest groups. It is about making sure that such evidence is published so that, as the hon. and learned Gentleman said in his opening remarks, it is placed in the public domain without problems for the people who gave it. I am attracted to evidence wherever it comes from and look forward to receiving it.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

On a point of clarification, I note the Minister’s comments about evidence that may be submitted to us. It is a matter of formalities: in order to get the evidence formally submitted and therefore within the ambit of the resolution, does the Minister intend that it should be sent formally to the Chair? If material is distributed to the Committee, will that be sufficient to enable such information and evidence to fall within the ambit of the motion? Clarification would be helpful.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I started by being concerned about hon. Members trying to help me, and I must be careful not to stray into matters that may create problems for other Committees. I ask hon. Members to accept that I will consider what they are saying and will report to them later on how we will proceed. I will consider their request positively and try to get the CD transcribed.

Question put and agreed to.


That, subject to the discretion of the Chairman, any written evidence received by the Committee shall be reported to the House for publication.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]