December 11, 2006
Nick Hurd calls for evidence that proposals in the new Offender Management Bill will actually help reduce reoffending rates, otherwise he says it will only compound the existing problems in the probation service caused by a culture of permanent reform.
Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): One of the best and earliest decisions by the new Home Secretary was to scrap plans to reform Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons, presumably on the basis of if ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I wish that the Home Secretary and his new team had spent more time pondering the other inheritance-that of the Offender Management Bill-simply to test how much value it adds to the fundamental challenge of reducing reoffending rates. Whether those rates are 60 per cent. or 40 per cent., they are too high. The statistics reek of failure and financial and human cost.
We are discussing a fundamental reform of a service that is vital for public protection and is clearly under great pressure. I was struck by the number of people passing through the system. In 2005, 180,000 entered into probation service supervision and the number has grown by 30 per cent. since 1993. Is the service failing? The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) was passionate and eloquent about the fact that it meets most of its Government targets. However, the public perception is of failure, not helped by media treatment of some high profile, emotive and tragic events. There is also a feeling, which the hon. Members for Batley and Spen (Mike Wood) and for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) powerfully articulated, that matters are not helped by Government intervention and the Home Secretary.
More important, the probation service is another public service that is subject to the culture of permanent reform. The previous reform took place four years ago. When I speak to representatives of the big public services-for example, those who run schools and hospitals-in my constituency, I am struck by the common sentiment of, “Leave us alone. Stop piling on additional reform before you let the last one bed in.” That voice is being heard throughout the public services. Against that backdrop, the House should be tougher in pushing for hard evidence of the case for reform.
Is the Bill worth further disrupting a vital public service? There is only one yardstick: how will the measure contribute to reducing reoffending, thus helping protect the public better? An enormous prize is attached to that, not only the financial prize, which runs into billions of pounds if reoffending is reduced by 5 or 10 per cent., but a massive human prize in helping more of our fellow citizens get their lives back on track.
The issue does not appear to be about the principle of end-to-end management, which has hardly been debated this afternoon. The meat of the discussion is contestability-the principle or the threat of competition, which can be a powerful driver of change. As a Conservative who worked in business for 18 years before entering politics, I know full well the value of competition. I would normally support it because it focuses minds, raises standards of service and tends to drive down cost.
I am also a passionate believer in the value that the third sector adds. I recently visited a prison in Bovingdon to see the Sycamore Tree project, and I was struck by the extent to which the service depends on volunteers. That project, which aims to bring offenders face to face with the consequences of their crimes, was enormously powerful.
I need no lectures on the merits of competition or the value that the third sector can add. However, given the huge sensitivities about offender management and how we release back into the community people who might represent a risk to our fellow citizens, we must be sure that the Bill, which is highly centralist in driving increased fragmentation of the service, will make a difference.
My question for the Minister and the Home Secretary is: where is the evidence? I have not heard any. I was very disappointed by the response to my question-that as 2 to 3 per cent. of the market is already subcontracted outside the public sector, in the private or voluntary sector, there ought to be a body of evidence that supports a causal link between increased competition and reduced offending. The fact that the Home Secretary could not come to the Dispatch Box and make that case with any robust data was extremely disappointing.
In the absence of new evidence, one begins to listen to the voices of concern, which are out there on a very big scale. About 90 per cent. of responses to the public consultation opposed increased competition, a point made strongly by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby. The responses come from some very respectable sources. The chairman of the Probation Boards Association said that the overriding criterion was whether these proposals were likely to reduce reoffending. His contended that a multiplicity of providers being promoted in a confused marketplace and regional offender managers commissioning from the regional level and not the local level could only militate against the achievement of a reduction in reoffending.
The Prison Reform Trust is concerned about local accountability and a move away from community solutions to crime prevention and resettlement. The Howard League for Penal Reform considers that the current proposals “sound the death knell” for a publicly accountable probation service.
Usefully, the National Association of Probation Officers points to the maintenance of training standards. Today, apparently, it costs £70,000 to train in the probation service. That makes sense, given the need for qualifications and the high level of training. How can we be sure of maintaining those training standards in a more fragmented marketplace in which the private sector is more dominant? The Local Government Association warns that the new model would hamper local partnerships working together at a time when the Government appear to be encouraging just that.
I am all for strong leadership in the face of opposition and dug-in vested interests, as long as it is supported by good, hard evidence. We have heard none today. In its absence, it is not encouraging that the Government’s mind has changed so much in the past few years-although perhaps that is not surprising, given the revolving door at the Home Office.
I come again to the National Association of Probation Officers. It pointed out in its criticism of the proposals that the Bill is a complete reversal of the Government’s position in 1998 when in a consultation paper, “Joining Forces to Protect the Public”, it recommended that the national probation service be established. At that time, the probation service was perceived, it said, as a fragmented organisation with only limited local accountability. The danger is that that is exactly what the Bill might reproduce.
The case for reform and further disruption of a major public service has not been supported by evidence of a link between increased competition and reducing reoffending rates. The Bill reeks of centralisation, when one intuitively feels that the solutions are likely to be increasingly local. Personally, I regret the lack of emphasis on the bigger picture. There is an urgent need to make prison work more effectively for those inside it. That lack is particularly disappointing, given the excellent work done in 2002 by the Government’s social exclusion unit in identifying the key factors that influence reoffending. Those pathways to support the rehabilitation of offenders include accommodation, education, training, employment, mental and physical health, drugs, alcohol, finance, benefits and debt, maintaining relationships with children and family, attitudes, thinking and behaviour.
Since then, not enough has been done to make prison work more effectively. The Bill feels like a missed opportunity to get to grips with one of the most stubborn and unacceptable facts on the political landscape: two thirds of people who pass through our prisons will reoffend within two years. That statistic reeks of failure and carries with it a huge sense of waste-both of money and human lives.
OTHER CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE DEBATE
Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): The Home Secretary has set the yardstick for judging the success of the Bill: a drop in the stubborn and wholly unacceptable reoffending rate. The Government’s case is that increasing competition will achieve just that, but given that probation boards already subcontract, in effect, 2 to 3 per cent. of their budgets to the private and voluntary sector, what hard evidence is there from that outsourcing to support the Government’s case?
John Reid: First, this is not just a matter of competition. It is a matter of allowing ourselves the assistance of a diverse range of providers, with expertise that is particular to particular areas and that could help-in other words, a panoply or reservoir of people who can assist in trying to reduce reoffending. Secondly, I think that the hon. Gentleman is asking me, what evidence is there that the present position, which is voluntary-opening up to bringing in the voluntary, the charitable or the private sector-is bound to be less successful than the Bill? The truth of the matter is that, at the moment, the rate of giving access to other than the publicly provided probation service is very low indeed, although it is not so low as to mean that the Bill is a change in principle.