Clause 7

Offender Management Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 9:45 am ar 18 Ionawr 2007.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Abolition of local probation boards and transfers of property etc and staff

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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

I want concentrate the first part of the clause title, namely the abolition of local probation boards, subject to one or two remarks that may be more appropriate to schedule 2. The Government’s apparent policy is to reorganise the probation service  for the third time in a short period and to reorganise the structures that are provided to secure probation services in England and Wales for the public’s benefit. In 2001, the national probation service was set up and probation boards, broadly coterminous with the counties of England and Wales, were established to ensure local provision of probation services. Despite a number of criticisms at the time, that system has worked quite well. There have been difficulties with some aspects of provision in particular areas, but the system is barely five years old, for goodness’ sake, and the Government want to turn it upside down all over again. It is therefore unsurprising that the proposal is causing a great deal of controversy. It is the cause of concern about staff retention and attracting new people to probation work, and a matter of great political controversy, as I said on Second Reading and in earlier sittings of the Committee.

I take the example of my own county of Leicestershire, where the probation board, which operates for the city of Leicester and for Leicestershire and Rutland, is one of the best performing. It is well led and well staffed, and has hit more of the Government’s targets than many other local probation boards.

If Leicester and Rutland probation board is doing so well, why will it have to be reorganised? Why will the people who work within it have to devote as much time to dealing with the reorganisation as they do to the service itself? Why will the probation board’s limited resources from the Home Office—there is a 0 per cent. budget increase over the next three years—have to divert money and management time to reorganisation instead of getting on with the job?

I do not accept that the establishment of NOMS, with a chief executive, regional offender managers, and the bureaucracy, additional staff and expenditure that are involved, is a good thing, but even if I did accept it, I would still ask why those officers and that bureaucracy cannot continue to deal with local probation boards rather than the new probation trusts. Ministers have not thought adequately about the effective delivery of a vital public service.

It is very easy to sit in Whitehall drawing graphs, maps and plans and having the joy of being powerful and reorganising things without understanding the effect of that paper exercise on real people doing real jobs on behalf of real members of the public. For the life of me, I simply do not understand the point of replacing local probation boards, which have only recently been set up, with probation trusts, which are the equivalent of primary care trusts, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s understanding of the proposal.

We all know the financial problems that primary care trusts have had, and I do not need to be too much of a Cassandra to anticipate that under this Government’s management probation trusts may soon end up in the same parlous state.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson PPS (Rt Hon Stephen Timms, Chief Secretary), HM Treasury 10:00, 18 Ionawr 2007

This is the second time that the hon. and learned Gentleman has mentioned primary care trusts and  funding problems. I want to put it on the record that only a small minority of PCTs are in deficit, not the majority. Will he reconsider his remarks?

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

No, but I am grateful that the hon. Lady has had the opportunity to contribute to our proceedings. No doubt her remarks will have been noted. We are not here to discuss PCTs, but even assuming that the majority

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman has anticipated me.

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

I was using PCTs as an analogy and as an example of poor Government reorganisation. Even if the majority are not in deficit, that still leaves a huge number of individuals who are affected by PCTs that are in the red, which goes back to our discussion on the previous amendment. If PCTs, whether they are in or out of funds, place the provision of speech and language therapy in the criminal justice system at the bottom of their priorities, it does not make much difference.

I have yet to find a logical, rational and cogent reason, emanating from any Home Office Minister, on the need for a change from local probation boards to probation trusts. Abolition of local probation boards and transfer of properties, and so on, are matters that the Government have yet fully and properly to explain. Although there are one or two matters of detail that they want to deal with under schedule 2, which hangs from clause 7, there has, as far as I can see, been no proper and public explanation of the need for such a managerial change.

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

The hon. and learned Gentleman says that there has been no output from Government about why we want to propose probation trusts instead of the existing probation boards. On Tuesday, when we were discussing, I think, clause 4, I tried to explain why we are setting up the trusts and how we are going to go about it. I refer the hon. and learned Gentleman to the report of Tuesday’s sitting, and I am sure that he will learn something from it. I shall reiterate the position a little, however.

The probation service staff retention issue keeps coming up, and I asked for the facts on that. Although I accept that there is legitimate concern about the future, which has quite rightly been fuelled by a union that represents the many members working in probation, that is one reason why I want to make progress on the Bill and on the further discussions on future provision that will flow from it. There will be no big bang. The question is how to proceed to reduce reoffending. The Bill was not plucked out of the air. It is a result of the Carter report, which I am sure has been read by Opposition Members. That pointed the Government in the direction that we are taking.

On recruitment and retention, the rate at which probation staff leave the service—the attrition rate—dropped from 10.1 per cent. in 2003-04 to 9.2 per cent. in 2005-06. That compares very favourably with the rest of public service. So although individual issues have been raised—my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow mentioned the individual case of the   probation employee who had been in service for25 years—the facts and figures are not consistent with people leaving in droves and being unhappy. I hope that that deals with that point.

On clause 7 and schedule 2, clearly we need to consult further on probation trusts, and we shall. Clause 7 is consequential on preceding clauses in that it provides for local probation boards to be abolishedas the preceding clauses are brought into effect. Subsection (2) gives effect to schedule 2, which contains provisions relating to transfer of property and staff from boards to trusts and to other probation service providers, and between the different probation service providers. It is very straightforward and is consequential on what was decided in clause 4.

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

Will the Minister explain how the provision will be brought into force in clause 7, and the timing on that? The Minister has said consistently that he favours a gradualist, rather than a big bang, approach. However, clause 7 seems to do away with all probation boards in one swoop. It would help the Committee if the Minister explained whether the clause will take effect right at the last minute, and how schedule 2 and its transfer provisions will come into effect if subsection (1) has not been enacted.

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

Obviously, the purpose of clause 7 is to set out the arrangements clearly. The hon. Gentleman is quite right: it will take effect in different areas at different times as matters progress. I indicated that we would be looking for the first trust to be in existence from April 2008.

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

I hear what the Minister says about 2008. He has indicated that this will be brought in gradually, which reflects our debate on Tuesday. If my reading of subsection (1) is correct, however, it says:

“In consequence of the provisions of this Part, the local probation boards ... are abolished.”

May I press the Minister to make it clear that that abolition, once clause 7 comes into effect, does not cover all probation boards in one fell swoop and that it can be implemented in the gradual way that he seems to hint at?

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

It may help the hon. Gentlemanto know that clause 33 (2) allows for different commencement times. That point will be covered when we reach that stage. The intention is that the board would be abolished only if there was an application from an area or areas to become a trust. We have the appropriate amendments in place to allow for that transition. There is still discussion to be had on the criteria and I am happy for that to progress as part of the consultation with the wider community that we talked about. It is the wider community who will help us to solve the problems that we face.

The matter is contentious only until the hype is moved to one side and people listen to what the Government are saying. They then understand what we are about. That has happened in the various meetings and discussions that I have had with people over the last six or seven months. I am therefore happy for that  consultative and co-operative discussion to take place.I hope that the passing of the Bill will allow more convivial discussion about the detail of how we will move forward on the trusts.

I hope that with that explanation clause 7 can stand part of the Bill.

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

I have heard what the Minister has to say but I have also read what he said on Tuesday. What he said on Tuesday was descriptive and not analytical. It was “What we will do” not “Why we are doing it”. The question I am asking him today is “Why?” and he has not answered it.

One can lose the will to live. This morning I wish to preserve myself for further battles so I will not cause more trouble than is strictly necessary. I do, however, think that the Minister needs to be a lot more analytical in the way he describes his policy. He needs to tell us why he does things and not just what he intends to do. If he looks carefully at Tuesday’s Hansard, he will see plenty of description of what the Government are going to do and who is going to be on the board, and on the trusts and so forth, but he does not at any stage tell us “I think this is a good idea because...” I will leave it there for the moment.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.