My Lords, this Government have the reputation of sometimes passing Bills and enacting further legislation as an answer to situations. There appears to be a desire to legislate in order to give the impression that there is control, but in fact the ideas put forward are counter-productive and not effective. This Bill proposes the fundamental reform of a service, one of great importance to the well-being of the people; that is, both for offenders and the general population. I would like to state that I am chairman and chief executive of an insurance organisation. My business is extremely competitive, and I am therefore a supporter of competition which I believe provides better value for money. Having said that, my main criticism of this Bill is that it is not structured well enough to reduce reoffending rates. Given the years of discussion and tremendous efforts and investment made by the Home Office into the prison and probation services, along with the development of technology to assist in the sharing of information and monitoring of offenders, I feel the Bill to be a wasted opportunity and a classic example of ineffective thinking.
Sometimes it pays not to change dramatically existing systems, but to find ways of improving the existing arrangements to make them more efficient and cost-effective. The Bill effectively abolishes the present Probation Service and replaces it with a market structure. The Government claim that the Probation Service should be broken up because performance is bad and reoffending rates are too high, claiming that almost 60 per cent of those on probation reoffend within two years. The probation union, NAPO, believes that this Bill comes at a time when the service is performing better than ever and should be allowed to settle. It states that on the Government’s figures 53 per cent of those on community orders reoffend, but that the true reoffending figure may be up to 10 per cent lower.
Another point I wish to make concerns accountability, as the probation board will be replaced by a provider-only trust. I would need to be satisfied about the standards of accountability. Furthermore, as someone involved in the education and training of staff in my own industry, I would like to ensure that there are standards in everything we undertake. We need to ensure that there are training standards, qualifications and accreditations of persons involved in providing these services, and I therefore need assurances on these points.
While it has been presented as a local Bill, it is evidence of another top-down approach by the Government that will only centralise power with the Secretary of State rather than allowing local authorities to deal with their local needs. There is also little evidence to suggest that the Bill will have much effect, particularly on the main issue of reoffending and the management of released prisoners and probationers. It is more a drastic change which I believe will be costly and the results are by no means guaranteed. A further argument I want to put forward relates to the last major reshuffle of the system from which there has not yet been a full recovery. There has been remodelling and reshuffling of the Probation Service over the past decade and there is no evidence to suggest that this haphazard approach will bear more fruit.
With regard to young offenders, there have been horrific incidents with dire consequences. It is therefore imperative that we are assured that young offenders will be suitably housed and supervised.
I am keen to ensure that the probation and prison system shall not be another area where the Government seek to gain appeal from ineffective and badly organised measures. Having failed to see sufficient changes to the Bill at Third Reading in the other place, we have some suggestions to make. Allow better co-operation between the prison and probation services to ensure that both released prisoners and local communities have support to reduce reoffending rates. There should also be modifications to the way offenders are assessed for release. Just because there is a massive shortage in prison places due to poor government planning, local communities should not be put at risk from violent offenders to create more space. There should be a change to the way prisons tackle the rehabilitation of offenders to ensure that when they become fit for release they have opportunities in the community to prosper and become safe citizens, for the good of the individuals and of society as a whole.
For too long the probation and prison system has been subjected to the curse of popular politics, but instead of a tough rhetoric coupled with poor implementation, the answer now is a local approach that transfers powers from Westminster back to the people and organisations that can really make a difference. I am indeed unhappy about the attempt by the Government to invest more powers in the Secretary of State.