Clause 1

Offender Management Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 9:15 am ar 11 Ionawr 2007.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Meaning of “the probation purposes”

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

I beg to move amendment No. 24, in clause 1, page 2, line 25, at end add—

‘(6) This section applies to—

(a) the functions of the Secretary of State; and

(b) the functions of providers of probation services and their officers so far as they are exercised for the purposes set out in this section.

(7) In exercising those functions the person concerned must have regard to—

(a) the protection of the public;

(b) the reduction of reoffending;

(c) the proper punishment of offenders;

(d) ensuring offenders’ awareness of the effects of crime on the victims of crime and the public;

(e) the rehabilitation of offenders.’.

The amendment would insert two further subsections into the clause, which is essentially about the ambit of probation and its purposes. To place the amendment in context, probation purposes are defined, at least in part, by clause 1 as drafted. Subsection (1) sets out what might be expected from a provider of probation services. Much of what is described in subsection (1) happens already, first, as a matter of good practice, and, secondly, because that is what the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 requires of the probation service.

The third reorganisation of the probation service since the Government came to office in 1997 was effected by the 2000 Act, which set up the national probation service and the national probation directorate.

I declared an interest on Second Reading that as a Crown Court recorder—a part-time judge in the Crown Court trying criminal cases with juries—I receive pre-sentence reports in the event of a defendant being found guilty in order to assist me in the disposal of the case.

Clause 1(1)(a) states that “probation purposes” means, among other things providing for

“courts to be given assistance in determining the appropriate sentences to pass, and making other decisions, in respect of persons charged with or convicted of offences”.

That is what the probation service now does. I have been in receipt of such advice and assistance in writing and orally.

Paragraph (b) provides for

“authorised persons to be given assistance in determining whether conditional cautions should be given and which conditions to attach to conditional cautions.”

That is also something that the probation service does already. Its clients, as they are called, are interviewed, and the service works out the best way to deal with the defendant in respect of the facts of the case, bearing in mind the consequences for the victim of the offence, before the criminal justice system. The probation service then reaches a decision that the court may, or may not, accept.

Paragraph (c) deals with

“the supervision and rehabilitation of persons charged with or convicted of offences”.

That area of the probation service’s work has perhaps caused the most controversy recently, because of those defendants who are given community punishment rather than a custodial sentence and placed under the supervision of a probation officer. They are at large, depending on the terms of the sentence and the requirements attached to it under the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Such offenders are supervised by a probation officer, who must not only literally supervise them—that is, keep an eye on them and ensure that they do what is required—but ensure, through meetings, conversations, discussions and an understanding of the offenders’ problems or difficulties, that they are rehabilitated and reformed and that they comply with various conditions that the court has set for them.

Paragraph (d) deals with

“the giving of assistance to persons remanded on bail”.

Bail hostels are hugely controversial. A “Panorama” programme just before Christmas dealt with a bail hostel or hostels in the Bristol area, where a number of people on bail—clearly not for offences so serious that they should have been in custody, but for offences none the less—were able to misbehave while on bail. There is a difficulty in supervising people in bail hostels. A bail hostel is not a prison. On the other hand, it is not run by the police; it is nominally managed and run by the probation service.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 9:30, 11 Ionawr 2007

On bail hostels, the hon. and learned Gentleman is quite right. There is a great deal of concern about approved premises and estates—he referred to “Panorama”. He makes a fair point. I should like to put something on the record to which I hope we will return in our deliberations on the probation service. I acknowledge that one concern is that the media would have us believe that supervision of offenders happens 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That is impossible on approved premises. When we debate the probation service, I am sure that we will discuss it in more detail, but this is a good opportunity to put it on the record at the start that we must also manage public expectations and defend probation officers, who are sometimes expected to do a great deal more than is physically possible.

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

I am sure that that will be welcomed widely by those who work in the probation service, not least because I suspect that they feel rather put upon by this Government. I shall take the Home Secretary as an example, because he popped into my mind. It is interesting that he spends a lot of his time denigrating the people who are supposed to be performing public services for his Department, whether they work in the probation service or the Prison Service. As I said in front of him on Second Reading, it seems strange that in order to re-instil or create public confidence in the Prison Service, the Home Secretary should go to Wormwood Scrubs and give a speech to prisoners telling them how dysfunctional the Prison Service is and that it is failing them.

I accept that sometimes there are overblown public expectations of what the probation service can do to supervise ex-prisoners on licence and parole, defendants in bail hostels and those serving community sentences. We all know that, but it does not help if the Government, wittingly or unwittingly, go around spreading stories about the ineffectual nature of those who work in the probation service. If the Government want to encourage good standards of behaviour, good service morale and public confidence in the criminal justice system as a whole—I suggest that at present it is at an all-time low—one of the things that they should not do is go around beating up people who are working their guts out trying to perform a vital public service across the criminal justice system in very difficult circumstances.

One must bear it in mind, for example, that the people who the probation officers and staff look after on our behalf are criminals. They are largely drug  addicts; they are largely dishonest, and they are largely disorganised. They do not get up in the morning for nine-to-five jobs or keep appointments. They think that it is more appropriate to hit someone on the head and steal their purse to feed their drug habit than to go out and earn an honest penny. Let us bear it in mind that the probation service looks after some very difficult people. In a proper analysis of what is needed to instil public confidence in the criminal justice system and this aspect of it, it does not help for the Home Secretary or his Ministers deliberately—perhaps not deliberately in this Minister’s case—to denigrate it. In so far as the Minister was able to praise it just now, that is welcome.

To return to the context of the amendment, the further probation purpose referred to in paragraph (f) is

“the giving of information to victims of persons charged with or convicted of offences.”

There are clearly occasions when those who provide probation services will need to speak directly to the victims of a crime. Police family liaison officers, lawyers and those who work in the court service itself also do that; none the less, it is one of the many functions that probation staff carry out.

Subsection (2) seeks to provide a little more detail by further defining some of the purposes that we have just discussed. It states:

“The purpose set out in subsection (1)(c)”,

which deals with the supervision and rehabilitation of persons charged with or convicted of offences,

“includes (in particular)—

(a) giving effect to community orders and suspended sentence orders” and also

“(b) assisting in the rehabilitation of offenders who are being held in prison;

(c) supervising persons released from prison on licence;

(d) providing accommodation in approved premises.”

To some extent, that is a repetition of what is already stated or implied in subsection (1). In addition, it is what the probation services do already to some extent. Indeed, it is precisely the sort of thing that was envisaged under the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 when Parliament last had a substantive opportunity to consider the issue.

Clause 1 goes on to state:

“That purpose also applies in relation to persons who...are convicted of an offence under the law of a country outside England and Wales”.

That is particularly relevant to yesterday’s shenanigans when we learned that thousands of files were sitting in the Home Office awaiting an opportunity to be loaded into the police national computer so that the relevant authorities, be it the police, those who can lawfully gain access to the police national computer, the Criminal Records Bureau, social services departments, education authorities and so on, could determine whether the person whom they wished to employ or had already employed was suitable to be used in respect of vulnerable adults, young persons in care or those who were being educated.

We could be forgiven for thinking that the impression that the Government wished to give was  that it was the probation services that were letting down the country by failing to supervise when, as we know in relation to those who had been convicted of offences overseas, the Home Office itself was the cause of the problem. Ministers themselves were informed in October by the Association of Chief Police Officers that there was a problem and that the Home Secretary ought to be informed, yet they did nothing. They continue to spin out the message that the problem is everyone’s fault but theirs.

There is, and has been for at least a decade, a requirement under the multi-agency public protection arrangements for anyone who has been convicted of an offence overseas, especially a serious sexual offence, to be logged into the MAPPA system so that a programme of supervision or other activity can be put in place for them, at least so that those who are running the systems in this country know what it is that they have to cope with. In light of that existing requirement, yesterday’s announcements and leaks are all the more troubling and throw clause 1 into starker relief.

The additional purpose referred to under subsection (3) applies to persons who

“receive a sentence which is to any extent to be served or carried out in England and Wales”,

as it applies in relation to persons convicted of offences.”

Therefore, if someone were brought back from a foreign conviction in a foreign prison, for example, under a prisoner swap or another arrangement, that person would be entitled to or required to serve the remainder of his sentence in a British prison. All that must be understood and managed as a probation purpose.

I shall not go through subsection (4) in the same detail, but it sets out various matters in connection with the sentences that might be appropriate under clause 1. Subsection (5) deals with the requirement of the Secretary of State to extend by regulation the purposes that we have just been examining. They can include

“other purposes relating to persons charged with or convicted of offences or persons to whom conditional cautions are given.”

As usual, we have not seen the regulations. I do not imagine that they have even been drafted. I deplore the creeping habit of the Government—although the Conservative Government, while guilty of such action, were not quite as guilty as this Government—

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

A slight one, yes. Let me make a serious constitutional point. I deplore the growing habit of Departments of creating Bills that give a Secretary of State powers to make further regulations that sometimes bring with them criminal penalties, but which are not in draft and available to members of the Committee at the time the measures are being discussed. Such practice started particularly badly with the Access to Justice Bill in 1998-99. It was literally a Christmas tree on to which the Lord Chancellor was able to hang any number of regulations. Some regulations may be entirely benign, none the less it is important that the Committee scrutinising the Bill should have the right to examine the regulations that are to be invented under it.

The Minister may say that, in due course, a Statutory Instrument Committee will consider such matters, but that is not the same thing as issues will be taken right out of context. Although the deliberations of Statutory Instrument Committees are hugely enjoyable from time to time, as the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Gedling, and I know to our benefit, they do not provide the same detailed scrutiny as a Public Bill Committee.

After what I hope was not an unnecessarily lengthy preamble, I come now to the detail of amendment No. 24, which would add two new subsections (6) and (7) . Clause 1 applies to

“the functions of the Secretary of State” and

“providers of probation services and their officers so far as they are exercised for the purposes set out in this section”— the purposes that I have described.

Proposed new subsection (7) refers to “the person concerned”. That could be the Secretary of State or what is nowadays called a third sector provider. The latter could be a charity, a Church group, an individual or a limited company. It could be one of the companies under the Government’s rather revoltingly named “contestability arrangements”. I would prefer to use a word such as “competition”. It could be a public limited company, a partnership or any other form of legal entity. The subsection provides that

“the person concerned must have regard to—

(a) the protection of the public;

(b) the reduction of reoffending;

(c) the proper punishment of offenders;

(d) ensuring offenders’ awareness of the effects of crime on the victims of crime and the public;

(e) the rehabilitation of offenders.’.

I have no doubt that the professional members of the probation service do precisely that—I mean the qualified probation officers and those who are not qualified but are none the less accredited members of probation staff. They are concerned to regard the matters set out in paragraphs (a) to (e) of our proposed new subsection (7). However, what concerns my party is that the Government have not explained themselves. We and the public at large are not convinced that the Government, in setting forth on the Offender Management Bill, have really assessed the evidence in front of them and taken on board all the concerns that have been made public by interested and affected parties in such a way that the instrument being created will deliver the purposes set out in clause 1.

I will not personalise this by referring to the Home Secretary, but I will concentrate on “the Secretary of State”, the office holder. My concern is that the Secretary of State will, as a matter of necessary Government business expedience, have to delegate all of the tasks referred to in clause 1 to a host of public and other officials. He will use the chain of command of the National Offender Management Service to ensure, for good or ill, that the purposes set out in clause 1 are properly exercised. However, we have no reassurance that there is any proper accountability system to ensure that the public as a whole are kept in the forefront of the minds of the officials who are  carrying out the functions on behalf of the Secretary of State. That difficulty is going to be further exacerbated when one deals with non-state providers of probation services.

I have no doubt that those who work for—picking a few companies purely as examples—Securicor, Group 4, Transform or some of the big charities, which will be bidding for this work, are, as individuals, acutely concerned about the protection of the public, the reduction of reoffending and the proper punishment of offenders and so on. What worries me is that the Government have set up no mechanisms to check whether the purposes that they intend are being achieved. If the Government do not do so, their hopes for re-engaging with the public are lost. In that case, we will see neither a reduction in reoffending nor the proper punishment of offenders, and we will not be assured that offenders’ awareness of the effects of crime on victims and the public is uppermost. Still less will we see the rehabilitation of offenders.

At the moment, the probation service is overwhelmed with bureaucracy and the number of cases. Therefore, from the Conservatives’ point of view—the Liberal Democrats disagree—it seems proper for the Government to explore what they call contestability to bring in other parties to see whether they can provide probation services. That is fine as far as it goes, but unless the Government construct a system that is guaranteed, as far as humanly possible, to ensure that the purposes work accountably, the project will collapse. I think that this is the 60th piece of legislation advanced by the Department since 1997, which is more than in the whole of the 20th century. I am concerned that, although we are considering a well-intentioned Bill, it has not been properly thought through and will lead to tears before bedtime.

I shall pause so that other hon. Members may comment on our amendment. It would at least place in the Bill demands on the Secretary of State and probation service providers and their officers, which, unless they are expressly stated, could be forgotten and ignored to the detriment of public safety.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab) rose—

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Ceidwadwyr, Hexham 9:45, 11 Ionawr 2007

Before I call Mr. Kidney, I shall just say that we have had, for sensible reasons, a wide-ranging debate on the amendment—although perhaps wider than should strictly be permitted by the Chair. I am happy with that, but if hon. Members want a clause stand part debate, they will have difficulty persuading me to allow it.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Rt Hon David Miliband, Secretary of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I know that you are a fair-minded man, Mr. Atkinson, so I am delighted to be serving in a Committee chaired by you.

In my adult life, I have noticed not only scientific, social, economic and environmental change, but its accelerating pace. In the face of such change, legislators around the world have to consider laws that quickly become outdated and require amendment or removal and new laws that are needed in areas that were not previously legislated on. I do not agree with the hon. and learned Member for Harborough, who deplores the Government practice of setting laws in  frameworks that are likely to last a long time, which allows individual rules to be changed from time to time to keep up with developments.

I applaud the attempt of the hon. and learned Gentleman and his party to fix the Bill and to add something to its framework that will last. I am a big fan of objectives clauses in modern legislation, but there are none in this Bill. I appeal to my hon. Friend the Minister to consider a reasoned argument for the Bill containing, by the time it is enacted, statutory objectives for the benefit of us all.

So far, in my career in this place, my experience of statutory objectives is entirely positive. For example, I served on the Joint Committee scrutinising the draft Bill preceding the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000. We approved four statutory objectives that became the cornerstone of that Act and of the regulation of the financial sector by the Financial Services Authority. The Legal Services Bill is currently passing through Parliament. Again, the draft Bill was scrutinised by a Joint Committee on which I served and approval has been given to its having statutory objectives. Both the Legal Services Bill and the 2000 Act relate to regulators. The Bill that we are discussing is not about a regulator, but about a probation service or NOMS, although it is a little bit silent on that at the moment.

Thinking that there might be a difference between these pieces of legislation, I looked at the Criminal Justice Act 2003—again, I served on the Committee considering the Bill preceding it—and found that there is no statutory objectives clause for our criminal justice system. Many people would argue that it would be a better system if there were such objectives. Interestingly, however, the 2003 Act contains provision for codes of practice. That is an alternative way of establishing some control in an Act as to what can be included in subsequent secondary legislation and additional codes of practice. My experience has been entirely positive, and I want the Minister to consider whether it would benefit him and his Department to have statutory objectives in the Bill.

The two reasons given by the Government for why NOMS is required in place of the probation service are that the probation service is not performing as well and effectively as it could and that we are not tackling the reoffending rate in this country as well as we could. Both of those arguments are strongly challenged by the probation service, including my own in Staffordshire, which has given me strong guidance on this.

Under the Bill, the probation service can be given targets each year based on regional consultation, but that is not a very good recipe for a service that is confident about what is required of it for the future, because the service will not be able to allocate its resources in the best way to meet its targets effectively. The measures will give a rootless service that will not know from one year to the next where it might be required to go. That is reflected in the argument with the probation service today, when it challenges Ministers who say that it is not performing well enough. The service can quote figures other than those that the Minister can quote to show how well it is meeting the Government’s current targets. It would be valuable to fix in the Bill where we expect the probation service to go over time. That would help different  probation services to perform the tasks required of them and to plan strategically to perform those tasks.

The second argument is about reducing reoffending, but the probation service would be entitled to say that that might simply be the flavour of the month. It could ask what would happen if there were a different political party in government tomorrow that had a different priority for it? The service is entitled to ask where is the priority for reducing reoffending rates in comparison with the other priorities, of which we all might approve. The amendment suggests other priorities without any ranking. If we get past this debate and agree that it is a good idea to have statutory objectives, there is then a whole new debate to be had about whether the objectives should be equal or whether some should be ranked as higher priorities than others. That was a common debate during the scrutiny of the Bills that I mentioned earlier.

Does the Minister think that it would benefit him and the service that will emerge from the reforms if there were some statutory objectives, so that everybody knows whether the provider is from the public, private or voluntary sector, and what the provider is signing up for when it agrees to take on a contract to provide a service?

The reason why I shall not support the amendment, if it is pressed to a vote, is that I do not think that it goes far enough. I shall suggest a different set of priorities. When I was a legal student, which was a very long time ago, I remember a famous criminal court judgment setting out the purposes of the sentencing, which later became known in the text books as the seven purposes of sentencing. There are five priorities in proposed new subsection (7), and I have some suggestions for variations or additions to them. The issue of public confidence is about more than the “protection of the public” in paragraph (a); it runs through all five of the priorities. It might also concern public accountability for public spending on the service, the effectiveness of the system of inspection, or even, in the public’s mind, the right balance in such a sensitive public service of provision by the public sector, the voluntary sector and, crucially, the private sector, which has the additional motivation of making a profit. Public confidence is not listed, but it should be considered.

Another issue, which has growing resonance today and which will be increasingly important in the future, is reparation, which is not dealt with directly in any of the five paragraphs in the amendment but is a growing area. Whether an offender is sentenced to carry out unpaid work, required to confront a victim to say sorry or ordered to pay compensation to pay for repairs to public property, those are all examples of reparation. It is a growing area of interest and concern in this country, and maybe it should be a statutory objective in its own right. I also think there is a growing interest in victim support, which is mentioned in proposed new paragraph (d), but the issue is much greater and wider than that.

Another issue is the contribution that the probation service and NOMS should be required to make to the effectiveness of the whole criminal justice system, which, again, is not before us for consideration at the moment.

Lastly, although this is ancillary to all the things that I have mentioned, there is the issue of public education about the purposes of a criminal justice system and the role of probation and offender management within it. I shall therefore put forward for consideration some other items in the area of statutory objectives, which could be included if the Minister is interested.

The last point I want to make concerns one of the many briefings that we have received—the Minister rightly said at the outset that we will not be short of briefings. The one I want to refer to is from Rainer, the national charity for supporting young people and young adults—the name Rainer apparently comes from one of its founding members, Frederick Rainer, whose donation helped to appoint the first police court missionary in 1876, a forerunner of today’s modern probation service.

It is important for the Minister to understand that this briefing is largely supportive of the Government’s position and that Rainer is not one of the many critics. The briefing states that the Bill presents

“a danger that the proposals weaken the core public protection functions of the current probation service. In addition to providers falling within the remit of HM Inspector of Probation, Rainer would welcome a clarification from Ministers as to how accountability will be maintained.”

I say to the Minister that if even friends are worried about accountability, is that not another argument for some kind of statutory objective or objectives on the face of the Bill? This would be a helpful reassurance to the Minister’s friends as well as to the Minister’s opponents.

Photo of Mark Hunter Mark Hunter Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 10:00, 11 Ionawr 2007

I want to address my remarks specifically to amendment No. 24, which was tabled in the names of the hon. and learned Member for Harborough and my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion.

I think the value of the amendment is that it clearly restates the five specific aims of the probation service, namely to protect the public, to reduce reoffending, to ensure the proper punishment of offenders, to ensure offenders’ awareness of the effects of crime on the victims of crime and on the public and, of course, to rehabilitate offenders. All five key aims, in my opinion, are important. The value of having them in the Bill is that it would make it a legal imperative for those said aims to be considered by the Secretary of State and the providers of the service when they are carrying out any role connected with the probation service.

The question seems to concern why amendment No. 24 is needed, and I want to say a few words about that. Clause 1 defines in a general way the purposes of the probation service, but it does not specify the aims of the probation service. As I have said, the aims of the probation service were specified in the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000, and I think that they need to be restated in the context of this Bill. The aims seem to command general support, and I am therefore at a loss to understand the reason for the remission of the 2000 Act, but I have no doubt that the Minister will address that in due course.

None of us on either side of the Committee wants to see the introduction of competition causing in any way, shape or form a reduction in the quality of service provided. On the contrary, private companies that may  be involved or which are already involved need to be made aware that we cannot allow standards to slip and that the protection of the public, the reduction of reoffending, real rehabilitation, proper punishment of offenders and ensuring offenders’ awareness of the effects of crime on their victims and the public are targets for the probation service. Those are the key targets, rather than the £1.7 billion savings identified in the NOMS strategic business case in October 2005. Those savings might be important, but they are not as important as the service’s core aims.

It follows that the Government must not use contestability as an excuse to cut the service’s costs and save money. They should concentrate on increasing the service’s quality and—this must be the top priority—cutting reoffending rates. When choosing providers, the Secretary of State must have regard to carrying out those aims and not simply to the issue of which organisation is the highest bidder or might offer the most cost-effective service. The introduction of contestability will almost inevitably involve the fragmentation of the probation system, and private companies that are not used to dealing with probation might obtain a role in some cases. We would therefore do them a service by providing clear guidelines about their priorities in the Bill.

Through multi-agency public protection arrangements, the service now works with the police on the protection of the public, which is, after all, the bottom line in the whole debate. More than 40,000 offenders who have been convicted of sexual or violent offences and who have received a prison sentence of more than one year are now monitored. Of them, about 1,300—the so-called critical few—are thought to pose the greatest risk to the public, and another 12,000 or so are medium to high risk. The probation service and the police have been working effectively together, and that arrangement needs to continue and to be further improved. Last year, 0.44 per cent. of offenders in the highest two categories were convicted of a further offence.

On reducing reoffending, the statistics show that the reoffending rate after two years in prison is 66 per cent., compared with 53 per cent. on probation. Indeed, the figure for probation has been reduced by 3.5 per cent. since 1997, at a time when all the predictions from the Home Office were that it would rise. It is vital that the rate is monitored and that it continues to fall.

On the proper punishment of offenders, the media have often accused the probation service of being a soft touch or some sort of soft option, but I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the Committee recognise that that is far from the reality. As a condition of their orders, more than 30,000 offenders who are sentenced to probation now attend groups, including groups on anger management, sex offender treatment programmes and cognitive behaviour therapy. Reoffending rates are expected to be further reduced when the effects of such programmes are properly measured and taken into account. It is also important that community service is seen as an appropriate and effective punishment, although it is essential that the orders to which I have referred also help with rehabilitation.

Ensuring that offenders are aware of the effect of crime on their victims and the public is also crucial. Work with victims is an integral part of the service’s remit, and more than 15,000 victims were contacted about release proposals last year. During the preparation of reports and during supervision orders, offenders are made aware of the effects of their crime on their victim, and reparation and mediation models are used in many cases. Again, that work needs to continue and to continue to improve.

On the rehabilitation of offenders, the probation service’s core value lies in the offender’s ability to change and refrain from further criminal and antisocial behaviour. It is therefore vital that the service’s aims are clearly restated and that their effectiveness is more closely monitored. NAPO supports the amendment and accepts its aims, and it is vital that those aims are not forgotten in the environment of competition and cost-effectiveness that the Government are keen to welcome. It is essential in that environment that the aims of the probation service are not only clear, but a legal imperative for both the Secretary of State and the relatively new people who might become involved in the probation service in due course.

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

I start by thanking the hon. and learned Member for Harborough for moving the amendment and taking the Committee through the Bill in the depth that he did. I disagree with his political remarks, but I do not want to get sidetracked on those issues, as we could spend a long time on them. I want to concentrate on the substance of what hon. Members have said about the aims and objectives.

I was struck by the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, who hit the nail on the head. I am drawn to the objectives, but I am concerned that if we went down the route of the hon. and learned Member’s amendment, we would restrict ourselves in a changing world. I agree with my hon. Friend that we would have to reflect on where we see things heading, and I shall return to where that might be and what he has said a little later.

I do not agree that the Bill is ill thought out. It has been around for a long time—the Carter report came out in December 2003, and a great deal of work has flowed from it. The previous Bill was introduced in January ’05, and here we are, two years later, with the current Bill. The Government have thought about what has been said to us and the issues that have been raised.

As you pointed out earlier, Mr. Atkinson, if we go wide of the amendment, we might stray into the clause stand part debate, but public protection is at the heart of what we want to achieve. We recognise the vital role that the probation service plays—everywhere that I have been, on the public record and elsewhere, I have said that we value the work of the probation service. The proposals are not an attack on individuals, but about how we tackle reoffending in our communities. What is important is that everybody has a role to play, and the issue is about not only the probation service, but the wider community’s understanding of that point.

I have said on public platforms on many occasions in my time as a politician, as both an MP and a local councillor, that the criminal justice system has been  seen as a separate entity in relation to the provision of services and support. Local authorities, for instance, have a key role to play in reducing reoffending, particularly in resettlement and re-housing. We must get wider society to assist the work of probation officers, the prison service and the police in tackling reoffending, because that is only way in which we shall succeed.

The objectives behind the Bill are to try to widen the opportunities for the public, private and voluntary sectors to be involved through partnership work. As I said at the outset, we want a strong public sector, and we certainly want public protection to be at the heart of that. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and the hon. Member for Cheadle have talked about victims. We need to do much more work on that, and we are doing so. We have introduced the victim care units pilot, because victims get left behind in the criminal justice system. In some areas—for example, Nottingham—victim support through the probation service is good, but it is not consistent across the other 42 probation areas. We are trying to achieve a holistic approach to offender management, particularly through the partnerships that are available in respect of the probation service.

Confusion might arise as we develop the new bodies, however. We have already stated the responsibilities and purposes of the probation service, and we set out the vision and priorities for NOMS in the strategy that we published in February last year—the priorities are protecting the public, punishment and rehabilitation, managing offenders better and the organisational change to support that work. I want to be careful that we do not create confusion in the minds of the new providers about what we want to achieve.

We must get the balance right, and I do not believe that the hon. and learned Gentleman’s amendment is the right way to do so. I would prefer to go down the route proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford.

Photo of Nick Hurd Nick Hurd Ceidwadwyr, Ruislip - Northwood 10:15, 11 Ionawr 2007

I want to press the Minister to explain why he thinks that there is a risk of confusion attached to placing in the Bill five clear provisions about the basic fundamental values and obligations of the probation service.

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

The confusion concerns the interface between contractual and statutory responsibilities. I am nervous about that.

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

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister in the course of his answer to my hon. Friend, but surely the contractual obligations on the provider will utterly comply with the statutory obligations that we are asking for. They will not be doing something else, will they?

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

I am going to argue against myself now. I have sympathy with the argument, but we have to take the matter forward in a way that meets the requirements, that does not miss anything out and that does not restrict us to returning to primary legislation if we want to do something else. Therefore, in looking  at the service level agreements for 2007-08, we want to be clear about the direction that we give to providers.

I ask the Committee to let me reflect on the matter in the terms suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and come back to it. I have sympathy with what has been said. The Committee has started off in good spirit, so in that spirit I shall reflect on what the hon. and learned Gentleman has put to us and will return with a Government amendment to see whether that will help the Committee. On that basis, I ask the hon. and learned Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.

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

I shall come back to what the Minister has said in a minute. Let me begin by saying that his happiness to reflect, while welcome in one sense, is worrying in another, because it suggests that he is not entirely confident in his own Bill.

I thank the hon. Member for Stafford for his remarks, which I fully take on board. It is often said of Opposition amendments that they are imperfectly drafted and cannot include everything. I genuinely accept his criticisms, which were constructive, not destructive. He is concerned about public confidence, as are we; he is concerned about accountability, and I think that I used that very word myself; and he is concerned about the effectiveness of inspection.

We had a lengthy debate about the inspectorate during the consideration of another piece of legislation towards the end of the last Session. Although we were able to maintain the independence of the prisons inspectorate, the Government were not persuaded that the independence of the other inspectorates should remain, and they have now created one great Government inspector to carry out inspections of the Crown Prosecution Service and, I think, of the police and the courts. Certainly, the prison service inspectorate has remained independent and separate. I stand to be corrected, but that is my understanding.

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

We did not do that. The probation inspectorate is still independent. However, the inspectors can work jointly on such things as administrative support.

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

I think that I am right in saying that Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons remains wholly separate in terms of powers and secretariat. That is a separate office, whereas there is a joint secretariat for the other inspectorates, albeit that the holders of the office may be separate individuals. That is a matter of detail that I do not want to get involved in now. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Stafford that whoever does whatever as a probation service provider, the public need to have confidence in the inspectorate system to ensure that the statutory obligations are adhered to. Contractual obligations must be kept up to the mark, between either the Secretary of State or a probation trust and a provider of probation services. It is important that that is achieved.

Another matter that concerned the hon. Member for Stafford was the balance of provision between the public and private sectors. I accept that that is not part of our amendment, but I hope that that will not prevent him from giving it more forthright support.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Rt Hon David Miliband, Secretary of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The three things that the hon. and learned Gentleman has mentioned all came under the heading “public confidence” in my speech. He has described my being concerned with each of those three things, but I said that they are good examples of areas that are not covered by his amendment and in which the public would have an interest.

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

I am grateful for that clarification and I apologise if I misunderstood the hon. Gentleman. He is making points of public interest, not of party political difference, and if we can re-work the Bill so that those points are included or dealt with through public undertakings given by the Secretary of State through one of his Ministers, it will be all well and good. It is important for the Government to understand that the concerns of the public and of members of the Committee about the current state of the Bill are genuine. We are not here simply for the sake of hearing our own voices.

I take on board everything that the hon. Member for Stafford has said. He has talked about the requirement for greater emphasis on the victims of crime and has referred to proposed paragraph (d), which refers to

“ensuring offenders’ awareness of the effects of crime on the victims of crime and the public”.

I am not sure how much more emphasis we can put in the Bill. We are deeply concerned, both as constituency Members of Parliament and as legislators, that the consequences of crime for victims should be brought home to the criminal. The courts are keen to emphasise that, and from reading any number of probation officers’ pre-sentence reports, I know that it is uppermost in their minds when they advise the court  about the proper sentence. The hon. Gentleman will remember, from his days as an advocate in his part of the world, that that is true. Increasingly, the public at large wants to be assured that the criminal justice system pays attention to the needs of victims.

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned the issue of public education, which is a huge topic, but I am not sure how one can ensure that the Bill will lead to better public education about the work of the probation service. I accept the more general point that the work of the probation service, whether in the state sector—as is currently the case—or provided by third sector or private companies, is hugely misunderstood. To see that, one needs only pick up a newspaper following the making of a sentence.

I shall give the example of a case in which I was engaged. Last year, I had to sentence a young man of about 15 or 16 who had destroyed about £3 million of property belonging to a bus company in London by committing arson on about 10 buses. He had been on remand for about nine months and had an IQ of about 70—he was just above the intellectual level below which he would have been designated educationally subnormal. Bearing it in mind that he had been in custody for nine months—effectively the equivalent of an 18-month custodial sentence—and that he was severely intellectually impaired, I gave him a community punishment. In the following day’s newspapers, the case was reported as, “Judge Lets Off Vicious Arsonist”.

It being twenty-five minutes past Ten o’clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.