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Lord Bassam of Brighton: We have had an illuminating debate and I hope that I have been helpful in providing further clarification. It needs to be placed on record that there can be little dispute that improvements can always be made to the management of any part of the government estate. We are trying to secure the best benefits from a nationally organised Probation Service and achieve greater economies of scale, greater efficiencies and ensure that the estate is managed well and effectively on behalf of the local service. That is the way we see the system working. Whether or not the Probation Service is a non-departmental public body does not affect our view of the importance of central management in the management of the estate.

We simply want to achieve the best use of the service and I have no doubt that the noble Baroness will be the first to confirm the importance of that. Furthermore, when governments have sought to bring together localised services in a national format it is important that they seek to improve the quality of management of the national estate. There is nothing to stop boards carrying out minor issues relating to the management of premises and the Bill simply prevents local boards from owning property. Management will be reflected on locally and some of the issues which the noble Baroness raised--for instance, the hiring of electricians, plumbers and so forth--will undoubtedly be closely supervised by the local board.

The amendments would do nothing to advance that case and we believe that things are best managed centrally in the creation of a new national Probation Service.

Baroness Blatch: We shall return to the matter. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 23 and 24 not moved.]

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 25:

("( ) The local board shall publish the plan (or any modified plan) prepared under this paragraph in at least two newspapers circulating widely in its area, and otherwise as it thinks fit or as the Secretary of State shall direct, and shall make it available for public inspection during ordinary office hours, either at the board's offices or at some convenient place appointed by the board.").

The noble Baroness said: The amendment relates to local government and simply proposes that the reports should be published so as to inform local people about what is happening. Although the service is national, they are local institutions accountable to their communities. It is an important amendment which the Minister, had he been sitting on this side of the Committee, would have pressed me to support. I beg to move.

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Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am not sure whether I would have argued the same case had I been on the Benches opposite. Amendment No. 25 would require each board to publish its annual plan in a very specific way and Amendment No. 34 would require very specific publication of the requirements of board plans. We believe that the amendments can be achieved in a more flexible way--and I use that word in the context of these amendments--by using the Secretary of State's powers of direction under the Bill in Schedule 1 paragraph 14.

While we are all in favour of transparency and accountability, which are two important terms in regard to the Bill, Amendment No. 25 is far too prescriptive and proposes an unnecessarily complex and expensive procedure. We oppose the restrictions on the arrangements which boards might make to deliver services and regard it as unnecessary to specify that the organisations and individuals concerned should be appropriate. We are also opposed to the onerous arrangements proposed for publicising how services are to be delivered. Our new boards and other provisions in the Bill provide for transparency and accountability in the operation of the service.

Lord Hylton: I can understand the Minister's objection to the word "shall" in Amendment No. 25. Would he look more favourably on the proposal if the amendment instead used the word "may"? That would give local boards the option of publicising what they wanted to do, which would be in the public interest.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I believe that the local board is best placed to determine that and that it is unnecessary to specify it in the amendments. It may well be that local boards want to publicise plans in the way suggested but I do not believe that constraining them in a straitjacket, as suggested in the amendments, is the best way forward. That is best done locally. If boards of their own volition wanted to publicise in the way suggested, that would be fine.

Baroness Blatch: There is an interesting irony because the noble Lord has spent a good deal of today arguing about central control and direction. However, as regards this issue it is for boards to decide what they want to do. If a board does not want to tell the world what it is doing so be it; if a board does want to, so be it.

I believe that there should be a requirement on the boards to be open about their affairs; that it would fit naturally under national standards and is important in a centrally controlled service. I shall not go to the barricades about the specific wording appearing on the face of the Bill, but it would be helpful to know whether in regulations or circulars to the service there will be a requirement for boards to be open about their arrangements and plans and their annual reports.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am prepared to give an undertaking to consider the implication behind the amendments. Whether they are acceptable as drafted is another question. However, like the noble Baroness, I believe that it is wise for such bodies effectively to

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communicate their intentions as regards organisation, management and effectiveness of the service. Therefore, I am prepared to take that point away and I thought that the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, was most helpful in that respect.

Baroness Blatch: I am grateful to the Minister and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 26:

    Page 49, line 27, leave out ("prescribed persons") and insert ("any person").

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 26 I shall speak also to Amendment No. 27. Paragraph 18 of Schedule 1 reads:

    "Regulations may require each local board to make and publicise arrangements for dealing with complaints made by or on behalf of prescribed persons in relation to things done under the arrangements made by the board under section 5".

Why prescribe the persons? Why should it not be possible for anyone who complains about the service to be given a proper hearing? Why should any Home Secretary say that one category of person may complain but another may not? It seems to me that if someone has a complaint against the service it should be dealt with.

Amendment No. 27 provides the service with an opportunity for defence. We all know that vexatious complaints are made about services and it is important that there should be an independent view of them so that they can be ruled out at the outset. It is important also that the service itself has the opportunity to be defended. Amendment No. 27 states that an independent person shall be appointed; that the complainant or local board may appeal against that person's decision; and that the independent person or tribunal may be appointed in respect of more than one board--so that there could be an economy of scale by having someone cover more than one board area. The idea of having prescribed persons is incomprehensible. Anyone who has a complaint against the service should be heard and their complaint dealt with properly. I beg to move.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: I strongly identify with the arguments advanced in favour of the amendment.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: As to Amendment No. 26, the complaints procedure ought to be only for the use of individuals who have personally been at the receiving end of activity by a board or its staff. On Amendment No. 27, we will be setting up an independent complaints procedure in secondary legislation.

The Bill aims at ensuring that each board has a complaints procedure that will allow prescribed groups of persons who feel that they have suffered from the way that the board or its staff have acted to

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have their complaint properly heard. The scheme's purpose is not dealing with representations from any persons--such as contractors, partner organisations, sentencers or staff representatives. The term "prescribed persons" makes it possible to put those groups outside the scheme. The complaints mechanism is not designed to bring in third parties. It must focus on the prime users of the service. To go outside that would be a recipe for complaints chaos. We need clearly to identify who can use the complaints service and who is ex-parte to it.

Baroness Blatch: The Minister has named all the obvious people with the right to complain, but others are affected by the way that the service operates locally who may wish to avail themselves of a complaints procedure. I do not agree that the matter should be dealt with in the way that the Minister suggests. Any person should be allowed to make a complaint, which should be heard and dealt with without being considered vexatious. Conditions could be set out--such as if the service has caused a personal grievance or a grievance to family or property.

I feel strongly that it ought to be the right of anybody who is particularly aggrieved by the way that the service impacts on them--directly or indirectly--to have their complaint heard. There has to be a defence too for the service, which is built in by my second amendment.

6.14 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 26) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 71; Not-Contents, 114.

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