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Earl Russell: If I understood the Minister right, he is telling us that a board may at some future time, operate without a secretary or a treasurer. Was that his intention? If he is saying the board can operate without a treasurer, then I wonder whether Amendment No. 58 in the name of my noble friend Lord Dholakia about the need for adequate resources is even more urgent than I had supposed.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I should not want the noble Baroness to go away with the thought in her mind that somehow we are suggesting other than that these matters should be simply left to regulations. We are trying to achieve flexibility and not central diktat. That seemed to be the drift of the noble Baroness's concluding comments. That is not what we are about at all.

It may well be that other titles and other deployments of members of the board in terms of the way in which they work are more appropriate in the future. We do not wish to be tied down precisely in legislation. Dealing with this matter in regulations means that we are providing that flexibility.

I am quite happy to take away this point and have another look at it, if that helps the Committee this evening. However, it is the flexibility question about which we are most concerned. Perhaps the matter is best left there at this stage of our discussions.

Baroness Blatch: This is a matter to which we shall have to return. It is worrying. The noble Earl has aroused another suspicion. Either the Secretary of State may wish to place secretaries and treasurers onto the boards, or worse, they should exist without them.

The work which the boards will do is extremely complex and legalistic. We live in a more litigious world now. The work of the boards will be considerable. Managing complex budgets, contracting out services and buying and selling their services will mean that they will need first-class legal, technical and accountancy advice. That can be obtained through a good secretary and treasurer. It seems to me that absolutely no harm is done by putting that responsibility on the board. In fact, I go further and say that there should be a responsibility on the board to have a secretary and treasurer.

I do not believe that there should be flexibility. The Minister has not told the Committee why that flexibility is needed in the future unless, as I say, it is not to make the appointments at all or that somebody else should make those appointments. We shall certainly return to this matter, but for the moment I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 19A and 20 not moved.]

2 Oct 2000 : Column 1172

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 21:

    Page 47, line 40, leave out sub-paragraph (1) and insert--

("(1) The Secretary of State shall pay to a probation board, in a timely manner, such amounts as shall be necessary for each board to discharge its responsibilities.").

The noble Baroness said: This amendment is concerned with cash flow and borrowing powers. Arising from the move to 100 per cent Home Office funding, local authorities will no longer act as bankers for the probation boards. There is a serious anxiety in this regard based on previous experience; namely, that the Home Office arrangements for making payments, which will be the only source of grant, may leave boards in serious difficulties.

Again, I go back to records of departments on this subject. Government departments are not known for making timely payments. They do a great deal of lecturing other people about making timely payments but very often the Government are in default. While the actual mechanism for payment is not a matter for primary legislation, I know that chief officers would wish to see the responsibility of the Secretary of State properly acknowledged on the face of the Bill.

Moreover, it would be helpful if the Minister were able to say something about borrowing powers. I understand that throughout ministerial comment made in the other place about borrowing powers, no one suggested that boards should have unfettered borrowing powers. Chief officers are not asking for that. But they ask for the facility to cover emergencies; for example, in the eventuality of late Home Office payments to which I have just referred. The Secretary of State may authorise specific or even general powers in that respect. We hope that, in practice, a general authorisation will be given to probation boards to borrow money in the event of an error or in the event of a delay in Home Office payments. I beg to move.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: Amendment No. 21A stands in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Dholakia. It covers almost the same ground as the amendment just moved by my noble friend Lady Blatch. I hope that in his response the Minister will not plead the need for flexibility. I see that flexibility is a quality which is on the side of government but certainly not on the side of these boards, which do not want flexibility in the matter of financing any more than they want it in the matter of having a treasurer and a secretary.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am sure they want certainty.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: Indeed.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: We do not have any quarrel with the fact that the Government should pay appropriate amounts to local boards on appropriate days. As I am sure we all agree, that is a function of good government. But the same applies to all areas of expenditure which require government to make grants to organisations. It is understood and, of course, it is something that should happen. In our view, there is

2 Oct 2000 : Column 1173

absolutely no need to clutter the bell with what are perhaps unnecessary embellishments by way of the amendments. I understand the spirit behind them but they are an embellishment. This is not an amendment which we feel we can accept, although, of course, I shall go away and persuade my colleagues in the Home Office that they had better make sure that the grants are made on time.

Baroness Blatch: What happens if they are not?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: This is one undertaking which I dread to give. However, I am sure that appropriate borrowing powers will be in place and that the Secretary of State will approve those powers. I am sure that boards will not be left without the necessary cash to carry out their functions and responsibilities.

Earl Russell: The number of Ministers who have given that reply must by now run well into four figures. Some of them have been optimists.

The Earl of Erroll: I had not intended to intervene in this matter because it is not my subject at all. However, from personal experience I assure the Committee that Ministers do not pay their bills on time. My wife has experienced this in relation to countryside matters. Schemes have been approved by the European Parliament but the money has not been forthcoming. It has been necessary to put contractors on stand-by and schemes have been delayed. The Government do not pay their bills. They withhold money. I merely advise the Committee that we should not expect such matters to run smoothly.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: I cannot forfend but to dwell for a moment on that wonderful expression "cluttered with embellishments". I wonder whether the Minister views as a cluttering embellishment his own entitlement to remuneration. However, I let that pass.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I think that my family would see it as essential.

Baroness Blatch: But I am sure that his bank manager has given the noble Lord borrowing powers. Again, we have said enough to demonstrate that, whatever happens, delayed or untimely payments must not put the service at risk. Whatever the arrangements are, it is absolutely essential that some facility is made available to the boards to make sure that they can continue their important work. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 21A not moved.]

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 22:

    Page 48, line 12, after ("holding") insert ("or managing land and other").

2 Oct 2000 : Column 1174

The noble Baroness said: In speaking to Amendment No. 22 I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 23, 24, 72, 74 and 75. This is another important issue and one where I believe there is a real difference of opinion between the Home Office and those of us concerned about the ownership and management of property within the service.

In relation to property, and because of many of the functions undertaken by the service, the type of property occupied by the probation service is important. In relation to any fears held by the Home Office that the Probation Service at a local level cannot be trusted to have control and management of its premises and that it may do something extravagant or silly which would detract from and tap the resources that should go to other parts of the service, the Secretary of State has so many levers on the operational management of the service that it is possible for him to keep full control either through the inspectorate or through more direct intervention if he thought that there was mismanagement.

The three main assets that future boards will need to control in order to fulfil their statutory responsibilities will be staff--that is in-house staff and contracted staff--finance and premises. There is already doubt about the ability of boards to secure the compliance of staff in the event of a conflict between the board and the chief officer. Funds will be provided only by the Home Office. It is now proposed that the premises from which the board's responsibilities are exercised will be owned by the Home Office and managed by an organisation or organisations with which the board has no contractual nexus.

I read the Minister's letter carefully and it seems that there will be some draconian restructuring of the premises inhabited by the probation service. But to suggest, as the Home Office Minister has in correspondence, that,

    "there is some way to go before the probation service takes fully on board the concept of being a unified national entity",

belies the enormous efforts and the way in which the Probation Service has welcomed the proposals that have been put forward by the Home Office. The Minister went on to say:

    "It does take a leap of imagination for the present committees to see their successor boards as a different type of body, with different responsibilities and accountabilities, no longer independent but a vital component in a national organisation".

That much maligns the committees and their ability to change with the times in the interests of providing a better service. If some of the changes that have been suggested today are not accepted, they will be in some difficulty about providing that service, and they will be right to be sceptical about it. However, this reveals much more of a misunderstanding in the Home Office about the legal responsibilities of bodies corporate and therein lies the key question that the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, asked earlier about NDPBs. Also therein lies the problem of the actual status of the board and the capacity of the board to identify with aspirations for the new service.

2 Oct 2000 : Column 1175

The proposal in relation to property fundamentally weakens the future role of boards. Boards must have the power to exercise those responsibilities. The probation service is a criminal justice agency, managing difficult and potentially dangerous people. Boards have a duty to their staff and to the community to manage all aspects of "dangerousness" and that includes property. I know that since the Second Reading debate the Central Probation Council has held useful discussions with Home Office officials about the future management of property. Errors and difficulties have been acknowledged but it is unlikely that the discussions will be completed before October. It would be helpful to have some light thrown on the progress of those discussions and the likelihood of them being completed before the Bill passes through this House.

As the Bill stands, it could well be unlawful for a probation board to enter into any utility contract--gas, electricity and so on. The board is given power only to enter into contracts ancillary to its functions. If it is not a function of the board to hold or manage land, such absurd situations as being unable to provide or control lighting, electricity for computers, telephones and the like would arise.

These amendments provide for a more operationally effective solution. The Secretary of State will continue to have considerable powers through the inspectorate and through direct financing of the service, so there is no need for the Secretary of State to worry. There will be full co-operation and where there is not, the Secretary of State has the powers to sequester. Therefore, in the interests of the management of the service and the sensible delivery of the service at a local level, I believe that this is an important aspect of the Bill and that property ownership and management should be the responsibility of the boards and the chief officer. I beg to move.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Dholakia: I speak with some difficulty on Amendments No. 22 and 23. We have already talked about who employs probation officers and chief probation officers and now we are talking about who owns and manages probation service premises.

Earlier the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and I asked the Minister whether the boards that will be set up will be non-departmental public bodies and his answer was that he did not believe that they would be. We asked for a categorical assurance on this matter, and we have had no such assurance whether they are or not. We simply have the belief of the Minister.

This causes confusion because the issue of non-departmental public bodies was discussed two years ago in the prison/probation review. At that time it was said:

    "While the sponsoring department could set out a policy framework within which the NDPB will be required to work and control its resourcing, it would not normally be empowered to tell the body how to spend its money or how to meet its statutory obligations. Executive NDPBs therefore preserve considerable independence from central government, and would, in all practical ways, operate much like existing probation committees".

2 Oct 2000 : Column 1176

So if you are an NDPB that is the provision for you. However, since the review, nothing appears to have been done about NDPB status. The reason is that in July 2000 the Cabinet Office wrote to the Minister saying that the 42 boards created by the Bill would be NDPBs. Am I right? I believe that the Home Office tried to obtain an exemption, but neither the Treasury nor the Cabinet Office would agree. In other words, to all intents and purposes they are NDPBs unless the Treasury or the Cabinet Office agrees with the Minister.

I can go further. Non-departmental public bodies have accounting arrangements particular to themselves and if the Minister cannot get Cabinet Office agreement to an exemption there need to be specific amendments to the Bill. Everything that we have discussed would be absolute nonsense. If the Minister is not right, is there time for a specific amendment? The National Audit Office and the Audit Commission are concerned about the delay and confusion in the Home Office. The Audit Commission says that there is no good precedent for an NDPB not appointing its own chief executive and not owning its own property.

The confusion has left many financial questions unanswered including those of property, employment and so on. Have monies been correctly spent? Can the probation committee expect its end of year accounts to be closed by the district auditors with so much uncertainty? The Probation Service needs to plan next year's budget now, but it does not know whether it will be accountable to the new directorate or to the Public Accounts Committee. Is the chief officer or the chair responsible for the budget?

NDPBs clearly imply arm's-length governance. That goes against the thrust of the Bill. If the boards are to be NDPBs they will have a strengthened status but what will be the status of the directorate? If boards are not financially accountable to the directorate, what basis is there for the directorate to have any national authority? I believe that the Minister owes the Committee an explanation as to whether they are NDPBs.

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