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Local employers need to be allowed to manage at local level. That involves, for all the services, reading the property needs of the area consistent with providing an effective service. Paragraph 28 of one of the helpful letters we received from the Minister, which I understand was copied to all Members involved in the debate, states:
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, we on these Benches support this group of amendments. We believe that some of the Government's justification for the proposals in the Bill, and in Schedule 1 in particular, is spurious and will not be realised in practice. Far from relieving local probation boards of concern and worry, the proposals are likely to add to them. Nothing can be more frustrating than having relatively modest property matters dealt with via Whitehall, with the distancing and bureaucracy that that can and often does mean. I know from experience on quangos that it is a great boon to be able to handle one's own property matters. It invariably leads to quicker, more effective, more efficient and, in the end, cheaper property arrangements.
As the boards will have the important task of keeping an eye on their own expenditures, it is important that they should be able to strike local bargains. A centralised property service may be unable to do that.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, in reflecting on what has been said in this short debate, I see that the argument is part and parcel of our earlier arguments about central versus local. It ought not to be. We are proposing a national service, creating a more rational, better and efficient use of the resources available to each board. I shall deal first with the amendments and then the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and the noble Lord, Lord Phillips.
Amendments Nos. 9 to 11 and 34 to 36 change the wording of various provisions in the Bill relating to the powers of local boards in respect of land and other property. Amendment No. 9 would give the local boards a specific power to hold and manage land as well as other property, subject to directions given by the Secretary of State. Amendments Nos. 10 and 11 would remove the Bill's current prohibition on boards
I believe that there has been a great deal of confusion about the question of holding and managing land and other property. Perhaps I may remind the House that we spent a great deal of time debating the issue in Committee. As the noble Baroness fairly said, I have written to her and circulated the correspondence widely in order to try to clarify the position.
However, perhaps I may try again to make the Government's position clear. We believe that it would be wrong for the local boards to hold land. In a national organisation, which the national probation service for England and Wales will be, it is appropriate and sensible for the ownership of all land to be held at the centre. We will therefore be clear about who holds the land and why they hold it.
On the other hand, in balancing that, we have every intention that local boards should have full day-to-day control over the properties they occupy and that they should have such control as is currently provided in the Bill. Within that framework, we believe that it would be absurd for local management to have to refer to headquarters its need to call in plumbers, electricians or local service providers. That would be ridiculous. That must be understood but it was the proposition served up to your Lordships in Committee.
If understanding has moved on from there, I am pleased. I hope that my correspondence addressed those issues. However, it must be the case that within a regime of best value, where we are seeking to optimise the greatest benefit from the national holding of an estate and to procure more major services, the national holding of such assets makes a great deal of sense.
The noble Baroness had a suspicion that the proposal was somehow linked to cost cutting. I find that a strange suspicion for her to hold because, as I made plain in earlier debates, we are investing substantial additional sums. We have, effectively, reversed cuts which were imposed on the service in the mid-1990s. In proposing the arrangement for holding property and land we are seeking simply to make better use of it.
The structure of the national probation service will mean that we reduce the number of board areas from 50 to 43 so that they are coterminous with the police authority areas. It seems to me sensible that in that process we should seek to manage our land, buildings and so forth nationally. The rationalisation can then be conducted sensibly. No doubt from that it will be seen that the arrangements we are seeking to put in place are for the long-term benefit and improvement of the service.
I happen to believe--the Government, too, happen to believe--that local probation boards should concentrate on the job in hand; that is, administering and delivering local probation services. That is exactly what they should be about. They should not be involved in the day-to-day management of property, a function which I believe can properly be left to the headquarters--the major agency--of the national probation service.
That is what we are trying to achieve through the legislation. There is no sinister or other agenda. The proposals are not about cost cutting but about ensuring that good, beneficial, best-value principles are in place so that we can conduct the management of the estate in a more effective and efficient direction. I would have hoped that the noble Baroness would see the sense of that.
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