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Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I shall be brief. Perhaps I may ask the Minister one or two questions. I am reliably informed that at present at least 20 chief probation officers are not seeking employment in the new centralised service. That number could be as high as 24. When one considers that out of 52 probation areas in the country 24 chief probation officers are not seeking employment, that must indicate that something is fundamentally wrong with the principle that we are trying to establish.
Perhaps I may ask the Minister whether he undertook an exercise of holding exit interviews of the people who are working in the field to discover their opinion of the centralised service. If he had done so, he would have found that they are absolutely clear in their view that, if someone is employed centrally and working to a local board, there will be no accountability. More importantly, centralisation would take away the local initiative through which they have contributed so greatly to the probation work in their area.
I believe that, in two or three years' time, management consultants will be appointed at the Home Office to find out how such a mistake occurred. Is it not time that we viewed local initiatives as being far more important than we do currently and that chief probation officers are seen as servants of the local boards?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I have listened intently to the debate. I realise that the issue is important and that it goes to the heart of what the Government are trying to achieve. The noble Baroness suggested that I did not understand what she said in Committee. That is not at all the case. I understand perfectly the view of the noble Baroness and of Members on the Liberal Democrat Benches. There is a fundamental disagreement between us. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, spelt it out plainly. A fundamental disagreement exists in what we see as being the future of the national probation service.
Amendment No. 4 provides for the appointment of chief officers to be made by local boards with the approval of the Secretary of State rather than by the Secretary of State. Amendment No. 5 is a corollary of that, and takes away the Secretary of State's power to appoint chief officers. Amendment No. 33 would have the effect of providing for chief officers to be treated as any other employee of a probation board in respect of transfers to the new boards. Amendment No. 7 would remove the power of the Secretary of State to make regulations delegating certain functions of the local board to the chief officer, so it is more than just a question of the appointment, locally or nationally, of the chief officer of the local probation service.
The noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, quoted part of the deliberations at Committee stage. I made the point then that this was to be a national service delivered locally. That is exactly what the Government intend. We believe that it is right to establish a national probation service for England and Wales. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, seemed to conjure up some sinister implication from the fact that we had made a fundamental policy decision to establish a national rather than a local service and saw this as creeping centralisation.
I have been in politics a long time and I take this very simple view. There are many services--perhaps the majority--that should be administered and delivered locally, and democratically decided upon locally. But there are some services that the Government believe--and no doubt Members opposite during their time in government believed--should be better run from the centre, for very good organisational and operational reasons and for reasons of policy consistency. We disagree about this particular service, and that is what this debate is about.
The Government also believe that it is important to make best use of the precious resource of the chief officer. We believe that there are various functions of boards that are best performed by chief officers without the need for reference to the board. We also consider it desirable for certain functions to be performed in a similar, consistent manner, throughout the national probation service for England and Wales. We do not want the chief officer in one area being able to do something but perhaps his or her counterpart needing to refer to the board in another area. The power to regulate on this matter, which will be subject to full parliamentary scrutiny, is a means of achieving that objective.
One area in which we intend to regulate to provide for the delegation of functions from boards to chief officers is the recruitment of staff below assistant chief officer level, where it is right that the chief officer should have full powers without reference to the board.
As I explained to the noble Baroness in Committee, these amendments, if carried, would put a large hole in the concept of a national probation service. They do drive a coach and horses through our policy objective. Any national organisation worth its salt should have the ability to appoint its senior executives centrally.
The Government are satisfied that it is right for chief probation officers to be appointed by the Secretary of State. Our intention is to involve local board chairs in the chief officer appointments (where there is to be a change of chief officer) in order to ensure that there is some local say in the selection. But it is a matter of balance. The Government make no apology for believing that the central dimension should not be subjugated to the local. Quite frankly, the current system whereby chief officers are appointed locally has not delivered as efficient and effective a probation service as perhaps it should have done. There are many excellent chief probation officers and some excellent local services, but there are also some of lower quality. We believe that the appointment of chief officers will help to raise the standard and achieve greater consistency. It is for those reasons that we argue very strongly in favour of our case.
The Government also believe that chief officers should be appointed by local boards to serve as statutory office holders rather than being employed by boards. This is essential in order to ensure a clear line management relationship between the Secretary of State and chief officials. Treating existing chief officers as any other employee of the probation committees or boards in respect of staff transfers to boards would defeat the objective.
Clearly, we accept that there is disagreement between us on the way in which we intend to proceed. There is a philosophical divide, but it is one for which we make no apology. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, who said that this was a recipe for chaos. What happens when one has central/local conflicts? At the moment there is, from time to time, a chaotic state of affairs that arises because of the relationship being the other way around. The Government's view is that these things are capable of resolution. We have to establish some partnerships to achieve that objective. At the end of the day the Government believe that in creating a national service we are much better off having a system of national appointments that will provide for consistency of service, of objective and of service delivery.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, one thing that the noble Lord has said is absolutely right; namely, that there is a fundamental difference between us. I should like to think that it was a philosophical difference, but I do not believe it is. I think it is a practical one. We have an over-ambitious Secretary of State who is more interested in control at his own level than in the proper delivery of the service.
The Minister's response, and the response at the previous stage, did not reflect an understanding of the arguments pressed, nor did the noble Lord address some of the key points raised in the debate. The noble Lord has said that one of the differences between us is that we do not actually agree with the principle of a national service. I have said more than once that I do not disagree with it. The noble lord, Lord Phillips, said he did not disagree with the idea of having a national service. We all agree that that service should be effectively delivered at a local level. We all know that between boards and sometimes even within boards the profile of an area is very different and will call for different responses from different chief officers who understand their own area. There is no divide on the principle of having a national service. There is a serious divide between us as to how it should be delivered at a local level.
I repeat that the Secretary of State is not short of powers to deliver a consistent national service. He has powers to approve the appointment of the chief officer, but the appointment is made by the local boards. He has powers to appoint all the board members and, in extremis, to dismiss them. He has full control of 100 per cent of the funding of the service. He has the power to set the standards and the targets for the service. He can establish consistent performance. The noble Lord has said that it would be impossible to have consistency of performance. It is perhaps different from having a service that responds materially to the needs of the area. Consistency of performance can be secured through the inspectorate.
My noble friend Lord Carlisle asked about central/local conflict but the Minister did not answer. He simply referred to the point having been raised but he gave no true answer to that question. It is more than giving the local boards a say in the appointment of a chief officer.
The noble Lord has misunderstood the debate. It is not about having a local say. It is a constitutional argument about ownership and responsibility going together at the operational level of the service in the local area. I wish to test the opinion of the House on this amendment.