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Lord Bassam of Brighton: The effect of this amendment would be to remove the ability of the Secretary of State to request the report of an inspection of a local board be given within a particular timescale and for the report to contain specific information and to be in a particular format. Parliament already has the means to call Ministers to account for the exercise of their responsibilities under the Bill.
I must reject this particular amendment. Earlier we were criticised for not being more precise about the way in which the inspectorate might work; the issues it might cover and those which it might want to draw to the attention of the Secretary of State. The function of the inspectorate is to provide timely reports on a regular basis on the performance of each and every local board. I argue that it is reasonable to seek such information on a consistent basis in a prescribed format within a given timescale.
The clause continues the current arrangements for the inspection of the service. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, would agree that they appear to have worked well in the past. If accepted, this amendment would allow reports to be prepared on what can best be described as an ad hoc rather than a regular cyclical basis and in a similar style and format. It would make it difficult for the Secretary of State to assess the performance of the service nationally and identify any problem areas that needed to be addressed. We believe it is entirely reasonable that the Secretary of State should be able to specify the particular aspects of the service that he wants the inspectorate to look at and how and when it should report back to him.
We believe that the production of timely reports on a regular basis to a format which ensures that all boards match particular standards and levels of performance is very important. This amendment would undermine that important principle. I trust that with that explanation the noble Lord is able to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Dholakia: I have no difficulty with the explanation offered by the Minister. I have no problem about the form in which the information is to be given or the timescale within which the report must be provided. My difficulty lies with the information to be given in the report which the Secretary of State is to determine. What is the use of having an independent inspectorate when the Home Secretary can determine
The noble Baroness said: We appreciate that under Clause 7 as drafted there is a requirement for the Secretary of State to lay the report of the inspector before each House of Parliament, but it does not state when. We believe that a timescale should be included on the face of the Bill. Without such a safeguard it would be easy for the report to lie in a drawer and not see the light of day for many months due to more urgent business. This amendment is a confidence-building measure for the Probation Service. We urge the Minister to accept what we regard as a modest and helpful amendment. I beg to move.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: The intention behind the amendment is to be helpful. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising the matter in this way. As has been acknowledged, Clause 7 requires that each inspection report should be submitted to the Secretary of State who in turn must lay a copy before each House of Parliament. The amendment would require the Secretary of State to do that within a given period. In relation to the previous amendment I argued that it would be right that inspections and reports upon them should be carried out on a fairly cyclical basis. We seek a balance. We need regular reporting with some flexibility in the production of those reports and the way in which they are drawn to the attention of Parliament.
The Government have no intention to delay the presentation to Parliament of reports by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Probation. I believe that Parliament would properly call us to account if we attempted to do so or interfered in any way with that process. We have always been, and continue to be, committed to open scrutiny of our public services. We believe that the inspectorate has an honourable tradition and valuable independence. The amendment unnecessarily seeks to go further than the requirement on other inspectorates. That is an important comparison to be made.
We believe that the amendment places us in an unnecessary straitjacket. If we adopted the amendment no doubt the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, would accuse us of taking draconian action. We believe that we have the balance about right. I trust that with that explanation the noble Baroness is able to withdraw her amendment.
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.