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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I now have to announce the result of a deferred Division on the Question relating to political parties. The Ayes were 295, the Noes were 141, so the motion was agreed to.

[The Division List is published at the end of today’s debates.]

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Offender Management Bill

Clause 12

Power to repeal section 4

Lords amendment: No. 22.

Mr. Hanson: I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendment No. 23 and the Government motion to disagree thereto, and Lords amendment No. 38 and the Government motion to disagree thereto.

Mr. Hanson: The Lords amendments apply two novel parliamentary processes to two different aspects of the Bill. First, Lords amendment No. 22 proposes that the so-called super-affirmative procedure be applied to the power in clause 12 to repeal the restriction on work involving the courts in clause 4. Many hon. Members expressed concerns at an earlier stage about the pace of change in the Bill. We listened carefully to those concerns and have done two things in response. First, we gave a clear commitment that core offender management work—the management and supervision of individual cases—will be commissioned only from the public sector for three years, or until 2010. Secondly, we amended the Bill to ensure that the work that probation services do in relation to courts can be commissioned only from the public sector until both Houses of Parliament agree that the restriction may be lifted. The Government agree that the power to lift the restriction should be subject to the affirmative procedure.

As hon. Members will know, the Lords have taken a different view, and have subsequently amended the Bill to apply the super-affirmative procedure to the matter. Their amendment seeks to impose a delay on the procedure by specifying that a draft order must be laid for at least 60 days before both Houses may debate it. It seeks to impose requirements on both Houses by obliging them to approve a report that sets out what will be in the draft order. Both Houses would then be required to approve the proposals in the same Session, as set out in the order. I accept that the Lords have taken a view on the matter, but such a novel procedure is completely disproportionate to the change proposed by the Bill.

The affirmative procedure is well known by hon. Members. It is tried and tested, and I believe that it provides the appropriate level of scrutiny for the power that we have introduced. The reasons that the amendment requires the Government to give would have to be given in any case, even with the normal affirmative procedure. We have to make our case, and under the affirmative procedure we have to back it up with evidence to secure the support of Parliament. The affirmative procedure offers the Commons a clear, operational opportunity to give a view on those issues. The super-affirmative procedure is disproportionate, so I urge the House to reject the amendment.

Secondly, Lords amendments Nos. 23 and 38, too, seek to apply what I can only term “novel procedures” to the implementation of part 1 as a whole. Under
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those amendments, the Government would be required to lay before both Houses of Parliament a report containing a review of the proposals set out by my noble Friend Lord Carter in his report of December 2003, as well as the responses to—and a review of—the Government consultation document of October 2005, and a review of the proposals generally.

6.15 pm

Having examined the amendments in some detail, I am not entirely sure what they are intended to achieve. I am interpreting here, but I believe that their supporters in another place believe that the Government might have time to re-examine documents that are two years old, or nearly four years old, and that having done so and having completed a long and, in part, tortuous parliamentary process, they might not agree to implement the proposals after all. I do not consider that realistic. If we were to revisit those dated documents, we would merely see how far the policy had progressed and how many amendments had been made, thanks to consideration in another place and by my hon. Friends and the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier).

The policy before the House today is not the same as the policy set out in my noble Friend Lord Carter’s report in December 2003. It is not the same as the policy in the response to the October 2005 consultation document, and it is not the same as the policy contained in proposals made as recently as earlier this year. I believe that, both in legislative terms and in our planning for implementation, we have listened to Parliament, listened to stakeholders, and made some significant changes. I therefore hope that the House will reject Lords amendments Nos. 23 and 38.

The machinery of government changed on 9 May when the Ministry of Justice was formed. There may now be an opportunity for another place to conclude that its formation has made significant changes to the Government’s commitment to the Bill. I have set out clearly today how the Government envisage the commissioning process. I believe that the process described in the Bill is one that we can support, given what was said earlier by my hon. Friends, who have now left the Chamber and gone for a well-earned cup of tea. We need to concentrate on the way forward, and to end delay and uncertainty. For those reasons and those reasons alone, I urge the House to reject the amendments.

Mr. Garnier: I support the Lords amendments. Although I listened carefully to the Minister’s arguments on behalf of the Government, I think that they require rather more analysis than he was able to give.

When the Minister came to my constituency to address the Leicestershire and Rutland probation service at Leicester race course, than which there is no finer place, he did not exactly run away with himself. He was not exactly carried away with enthusiasm for the project over which he now has control, namely the National Offender Management Service. In the course of his remarks, of which someone kindly sent me a note—

Mr. Hanson: The hon. and learned Gentleman has spies.

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Mr. Garnier: I have a constituent.

In the course of his remarks to the Leicestershire and Rutland probation service, the Minister admitted that the probation service in my county was one of the best. It is probably in the top four, and it may well be the best of all in terms of hitting the targets that the Government have set it. It is therefore highly likely to be one of the first to be required to divert much of its attention, time and money to changing from a board to a trust.

Mr. Hanson rose—

Mr. Garnier: Does the Minister wish to praise the probation service even further?

Mr. Hanson: Not only to praise it, but to say that the chairman and chief executive look forward very much to the opportunity to apply for trust status.

Mr. Garnier: Is it not interesting that they say such things to people they talk to? I dare say that if I were employed by the Secretary of State for Justice, I should find it convenient to look forward to all his plans, not least because I might hope they would include me.

But let me return to Leicester race course, where there is a very fine straight mile. The Minister rightly praised the Leicestershire and Rutland probation service and also said that the creation of NOMS—that bureaucratic blancmange placed between the Secretary of State and the Prison Service and the probation service—had not quite turned out as he wished. I paraphrase what was said, of course, and I do not have to be careful about what I say as I am not a NOMS employee.

It is fair to say that most dispassionate observers of the creation of NOMS will have wondered why so much money was spent and what it was designed to achieve, and also why it was necessary to draw people from the Prison Service, the probation service and other limbs of the Home Office and other Departments and to push them all into the NOMS headquarters. For instance, why were all the regional offender managers put into post? I believe that there are now about 2,000 new civil servants working for NOMS. What benefits have accrued both to the public in terms of reducing reoffending and enhancing public protection and to the Prison Service and probation service? I acknowledge that these are still early days as we are only in the third financial year of NOMS, but it is difficult to discern any benefit that the public or public services have gained from the change. Its creation did not require legislation, but it is sometimes referred to in legislation, and the Minister found it difficult to praise it wholeheartedly when he visited my constituency.

I have provided some background, and I now wish to discuss how we got to where we are. This is not the first Offender Management Bill. Another one was introduced before the 2005 general election, which the election prevented from being enacted. The pre-2005 Bill came out of a report referred to in amendment No. 23, which was published on 11 December 2003: “Managing Offenders, Reducing Crime: A New Approach”. That led not only to the creation of the pre-2005 Bill, but to the collation
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of responses to the consultation document “Restructuring Probation to Reduce Re-Offending”, which anteceded the 2007 Bill.

We and the House of Lords suggest that those two reports and the review of the responses to the second report should at least be publicly understood, and discussed and digested by the Government, before the Bill is enacted. We do not seek to kill off the Bill; if we had wanted to do that we would have attempted to do so on Second Reading, when we gave it conditional support—although our hopes were disappointed by the time we reached Third Reading. We want to produce the best Bill in order to do what the Attorney-General asked us to do: to reduce reoffending and increase public protection.

On 6 January 2004, the Government published “Reducing Crime, Changing Lives” in response to Lord Carter’s report “Managing Offenders, Reducing Crime: A New Approach”. It proposed to merge the prison and probation services and to open up work with offenders to both internal and external markets. It also set up NOMS, with its national and regional structures.

Interestingly enough, on 20 July 2004 the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins), who is one of the many Labour Members of Parliament who have become Ministers in the past 10 years —[ Interruption. ] He swapped jobs with the Minister—what a treat for everybody. Anyway, on 20 July the hon. Gentleman, when he was Under-Secretary with responsibility for correctional services, announced that the Government had decided that their original proposal for the immediate establishment of NOMS regional boards and the separation of probation staff into offender management and interventions needed more time. He said he had decided that the option of moving immediately to create new regional boards was unlikely to deliver better management of offenders and better services—his main two objectives. He also said that he wanted to concentrate on delivering end-to-end offender management and that he would introduce greater competition, because he had concluded that those objectives could best be achieved through 42 probation boards. How times have changed.

In 2005, the Management of Offenders and Sentencing Bill was introduced in the other place, which would have abolished the probation service and introduced a fragmented market. By this time, the notion of merging prisons and probation appears to have been forgotten. However, the Bill did not proceed, partly because of an unexpected and strong opposition to its proposals in the other place and because of the intervention of the 2005 general election.

Ever wishing to consult, the Government issued yet a further consultation paper, as mentioned in amendment No. 23. It was called “Restructuring Probation to Reduce Re-Offending” and it was published in October 2005. That led to much discussion, and some response from those interested in the subject. By the end of the consultation period, on 20 December 2005, we had learned that of the 748 people and organisations that had responded, only 10 were in favour of the Government’s proposals. Despite that overwhelming rejection of the restructuring ideas, the Government have pressed ahead with the Bill, which had its Second Reading just before Christmas 2006.

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The Government’s view at that stage—it changes from time to time as they are a flexible collection of people—was that the changes were required because too many offences were being committed, reoffending rates were far too high, the performance of the probation service was poor, and matters needed a good shake up—never mind the fact that it would be the third shake up since 2000. If one keeps shaking things, they tend to break, but here we are, watching the Government shake it up a bit more.

Our complaint, which we share with the other place, is that the Government’s decision to introduce the Bill in its present form is not evidence-based. It ignores the responses to the consultation exercise; it promotes consequences that are foreseeable, but which do not appear to have been foreseen by the Government; it transfers commissioning powers away from local areas and into the hands of NOMS and therefore into the control of the Secretary of State, as mentioned in the debate we had earlier today; it reduces ministerial accountability; it undermines much of the probation service’s ability to do its work; it may compromise training standards, although we may have a chance to discuss that point later this evening; and it may undermine the concept of a probation profession, a point that was made by Labour Members earlier.

All those arguments are worth restating, because the Government are not sure of what they are about. This is the third restructuring of the probation service since 2000, but they have not prepared an adequate business case to justify their proposals, nor produced any evidence that the restructuring will reduce offending or increase public protection.

6.30 pm

Moreover, the Opposition have managed to discover that the proposals will be hugely expensive. I mentioned, in a recent intervention on the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne), that NOMS has a budget that is about £60 million or £80 million bigger than that granted to the front line of the probation service. The Government are spending hundreds of millions of pounds on chairs, desks and filing cabinets for the NOMS headquarters, and on moving no doubt highly qualified officials from the prison and probation services and the Home Office to an office in Whitehall where they wonder what they are supposed to do. We believe that that money would be better spent on probation officers, and on supervisory provision through the private and charitable sectors.

The Government might need the delay and time for consideration that the amendments would provide to ensure that the legislation produced is not muddled. I urge the House, or at least, as much of it that is here—

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): We are right behind you.

Mr. Garnier: I thought so: all young, brave officers say, “Charge, men, I’m right behind you!” I hope that all hon. Members will take this opportunity to think carefully about what they are doing.

Amendment No. 22 would make the Government and the Secretary of State more accountable. The Bill gives the Secretary of State huge powers to amend the law by secondary legislation. The question of whether
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the Secretary of State should use the affirmative or the negative procedure to change the law has been debated, and the Minister of State said in a letter of 17 July that the Government accept that some parliamentary scrutiny “would be appropriate”. That is very nice of him, but he proposes that it should take the form of the negative rather than the affirmative procedure. I had hoped for rather more than that.

If the Bill is to make progress, the Government should accept the procedure set out in amendment No. 22, which proposes what is known colloquially as the super-affirmative procedure. The proposed system is logical and clear, and would lead to far greater parliamentary scrutiny, with the result that the Secretary of State would be rendered more accountable to both Houses of Parliament. No democrat who is a member of the Executive should complain about that.

We face one constitutional problem that some people—and, from time to time, I am one of them—say is a benefit. It is that the Executive not only sit in Parliament, but on it as well. The amendment goes some way towards redressing the balance. If we can get the Government to ensure that their measures are “superly” affirmed, the result may be that the Executive are required to look Parliament more directly in the face.

Amendment No. 38 deals with the date of implementation. It may not be known by many in the Chamber that the implementation provision is to be found on the last page of the main body of the Bill, in clause 38. The provision permits the Secretary of State to designate an appointed day for the Bill to come into force. Amendment No. 38 would mean that the appointed day would be provisional on the factors referred to in subsections (1A) and (1B) in the amendment. Those seem entirely sensible and logical matters to take into account. [ Interruption. ] I am informed that the Government are so concerned about the super-affirmative procedure that they would like to speak at some length on the subject. I would be delighted if the right hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton, West (Mr. McAvoy), who is concerned about my well-being, could have that opportunity, but sadly he is part of the silent service, so we have merely to stand here and admire him in every possible way. Unfortunately, the argument that he has put to me politely on paper does not move me at all and, in due course, I will ask for the opinion of the House on the procedural matters in this group of amendments.

Mr. Jeremy Browne: It is fair to say that this group of amendments does not go as directly to the heart of the Bill as the previous group. None the less, they are significant and worthy of brief comment. I rise to highlight two objectives to which I hope we in this House attach importance.

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