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Lord Phillips of Sudbury: I speak from the other end of the NDPB telescope, so to speak. How is one to envisage the system working if control over all property and contractual matters rests in London? How can the Government conceivably, efficiently or knowingly authorise a board in Northumberland or Cornwall on the issue of premises? It is a bureaucratic nonsense. Governments are becoming like clearing banks where, in order to have some idea of one's balance, one has to go via Aberdeen and Belfast. The proposition does not stack up and I can only endorse what has already been said; that is, whether or not they are NDPBs, the boards must have power over their own property. Frankly, to deny that to them is a striking demonstration of the Government's lack of confidence in their abilities.
When I was being instructed as a young chartered surveyor, I was told firmly that "land" included any structures that may be placed upon it. I am not clear about this wording. Perhaps the Minister can throw some light on it.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: Perhaps I may deal with the last point first. My understanding is much the same as that of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. I am not sure that there is a sharp distinction. However, I shall ruminate on his point and provide him with a response at a later date.
As I understand it, Amendment No. 22 would allow boards to manage land. But Amendments Nos. 23 and 24 would prevent boards from managing land unless they had the approval of the Secretary of State. That drafting slightly puzzled me. Amendment No. 72 would give ownership of the probation estate to local boards instead of the Secretary of State, and Amendment No. 74 would allow the Minister to introduce a scheme giving the probation boards any rights or interests in property which he considered appropriate.
Baroness Blatch: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. If the technical details of the amendments do not achieve what I intended and what noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches mentioned also, the Minister must forgive me. We did a lot of the drafting ourselves and it may not be correct. But I hope he will not use that as an excuse for not addressing the specific point we made that it is important for the service to manage its property at a local level and that ownership also makes more sense. We can always correct the amendments or, if the arguments are acceptable to the Minister, no doubt the department will do it for us.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that point of explanation. No doubt it will be helpful to us. Just to clarify one point, I want to say that the purpose of my observation was simply to obtain a better understanding of what the noble Baroness is after.
Essentially, there is a difference of view here. Our view is that we want to see the effective and efficient management of the Probation Service estate. Amendments moved by the noble Baroness and supported by other noble Lords would seek to relocate the management or ownership back to the local boards. We believe that it is right for the land and property of the Probation Service in England and Wales to be managed centrally. In that way, in our view, there will be economies of scale in the provision of the services necessary to manage land and property.
The noble Baroness used the term "draconian" in her description of the moves and measures we are taking in this part of the legislation. However, she acknowledged that some of the culture change and change of view in the way the estate should be managed was necessary. The noble Baroness also acknowledged that important discussions are taking place between the officers in the management of the service and Home Office officials.
We all have the simple objective of trying to obtain the best from the estate that we manage. But at the end of the day there is a difference of view in relation to the effective and efficient management of the service. We do not believe that it is appropriate to go along with the course recommended by Members opposite. We take the view that a sprawling estate can better be directed centrally. Noble Lords opposite clearly take a different view.
I suggest that the noble Baroness withdraws her amendment. We do not see merit in it. We see the central ownership and management of the property as being entirely consistent with the other parts of the package for the creation of a national Probation Service and we want to see that consistency carried through in that relationship.
Lord Dholakia: Perhaps I can intervene before the Minister sits down. I put a specific question in relation to the non-departmental public bodies. A great deal hinges on the discussions that took place earlier. Can the Minister give a categorical assurance at this stage as to whether or not the boards are NDPBs, rather than whether he thinks or believes they are?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: We had this discussion earlier. I felt I went as far as I could in setting out how we viewed the situation. I am happy to take away the point the noble Lord made in his contribution to this debate. No doubt it is an issue to which we shall return.
The Earl of Erroll: Perhaps I can come in as a referee on this. I listened to the questions put forward and did not intend to intervene. However, the Minister has been asked clearly several times whether or not the new bodies will be NDPBs. Each time he dodged the argument and said he "believes", he "thinks", he "feels", he "may" or he "should". But surely it is a statement of fact as to whether they are or are not. I can see that a lot of arguments hinge on this point and the question has been dodged right the way down the line. It is not a question of taking this point away; either they are or are not NDPBs. As somebody sitting in the middle listening to the argument, I believe it merits a straight yes or no answer.
The Minister was concerned about my cynicism when I spoke of draconian arrangements. First, I find it absurd that the Home Office thinks it can run and manage the property of all these boards throughout the country. It is such an absurd idea that I am almost lost for words to describe the nonsense in the suggestion. But my cynicism comes from the words used by the Minister himself. He said that in the past the property has been owned and occupied by the service in a way which leaves a lot of scope for efficiency savings and rationalisation; some of those savings can only be realised if the estate is owned centrally.
What plans does the Home Office have? What is it about to do? If the service is allowed to manage its property locally, and if there is a remit to it from the Home Office to say that it should be managed efficiently and effectively, then the inspectorate should be used to ensure that it is delivering that remit. If it is felt that the boards are wasting money on premises or are being over-extravagant--I find it almost impossible to understand how one would know because I remember in the days when I was responsible for the service there were constant appeals from the various probation offices for approval to spend money on new premises or to refurbish premises and money was always a serious constraint--then the inspectorate should investigate. So the idea that there are vast estates of property throughout the country that are not being properly managed is absurd.
Serious issues arise in this regard. A point was raised by either the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, or the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, in relation to minor contracts with electricians, water boards and all sorts of people locally. Are the Government seriously saying that they will send in a civil servant to help them? That is mind-blowing in its stupidity. This is an issue to which we shall certainly have to return. But it is good to know that we now have an unequivocal answer that those bodies will not be NDPBs. I expect the Cabinet Office will be relieved that at last it has a definitive answer, which I understand it has been trying to obtain for some weeks.
Lord Dholakia: I am pleased that the Minister said that the bodies will not be NDPBs. However, as in July the Cabinet Office said that they would be, can he say whether he has had a definitive reply from either that office or the Treasury? If so, can we know when the change of heart took place at Cabinet and Treasury level?
Lord Harris of Greenwich: I agree with what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and by my noble friend about the property issue. The idea that civil servants will make decisions on these issues is an extraordinarily ill-judged approach. My noble friend Lord Roper reminded me of the words of an old friend of mine, the late Douglas Jay. When he was a junior Minister in the Attlee government he said that the gentlemen in Whitehall really do know best. Douglas Jay suffered a great deal from that statement and the noble Lord is getting close to it.
Solemnly suggesting that government officials will take decisions on all these issues is centralisation run riot. The noble Baroness was right to say that we shall return to it at the Report stage and I have no doubt that we shall vote on it.
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