HC Deb 14 November 2000 vol 356 cc857-78

Lords amendment: No. 39, in page 8, line 28, leave out ("(other than a chief probation officer)")

Mr. Straw

I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendment No. 44 and the Government motion to disagree thereto, Government amendments (a) and (b), Lords amendments Nos. 45 and 46 and the Government motions to disagree thereto, Lords amendments Nos. 47 to 50 and the Government motions to disagree thereto, Government amendments (a) to (f) to the words so restored to the Bill, Lords amendments Nos. 51 and 121 to 124 and the Government motions to disagree thereto, Lords amendment No. 130 and the Government motion to disagree thereto, and Government amendment (a) to the words so restored to the Bill.

7 pm

Mr. Straw

This raft of amendments raises an important issue about the management of the service. It has been a matter of disagreement in the other place, although I think that it was less so here when it was first discussed. It is important to put on record what has been agreed by all parties, which is that we should move from the current position of having 54 local probation services, with the consequent difficulties in national co-ordination and management, to a national service—the National Probation Service is a clear and unambiguous title—organised nationally but delivered locally through 42 different probation areas that are coterminous with the police force areas. In the past three and a half years, we have moved to ensure that each of the criminal justice agencies works within the police force area or, in the case of the Prison Service, within the Government region containing a whole number of those police force areas.

Mr. Simon Hughes

A Welsh colleague has asked me to ask whether the current arrangements will move from having separate services in Dyfed and Powys to having one service for the area of the Dyfed Powys police force. As the Prison Service has both geographical regions and special groupings of prisons, will the Home Secretary say something about how it will not fit tightly into the new structure with an entirely regional probation service?

Mr. Straw

The number of probation services is moving from 54 to one, organised under the separate police force areas. In Wales, there are currently four police force areas: North Wales, Dyfed Powys, South Wales and Gwent. The probation services would be coterminous with those.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the organisation of the Prison Service into regions. There was an interesting exhibition about that at the Prison Service conference two years ago. I was sceptical about whether it could organise itself into regions in line with the Government regions, but it has done so. Thanks to the work of my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor and his departmental colleagues, there has been considerable progress—against what had previously thought to be wholly immutable boundaries— towards reorganising the Crown court circuits from historic boundaries that had more to do with Edward I and the Welsh marches than with anything of contemporary significance to ones that accord with the standard English regions.

Some may think this a prosaic issue, but it is of great importance to those at local level, because in any one area there is only one chief officer of police, one probation officer, one chief Crown prosecutor and so on.

Mr. Hawkins

The Home Secretary seemed very dismissive of the historical origins of some of the circuits regarded as traditional by members of the Bar. Before treating the matter with such levity, he should recognise that what he is proposing to do has been referred to me as a cause of great anger among those at the sharp end of the profession. I hope that he has received similar representations, especially from the Midland and Oxford circuit, because I understand it to be a matter that has caused great anger, and not one to be dismissed with levity, saying that the boundaries date back to Edward I and are unworkable.

Mr. Straw

With respect, there is a difference between treating an issue with levity and having a sense of humour. I hope that the House understood that I was using some humour, but in a spirit of affection towards those circuits and without levity. Just because something is of great antiquity, it does not follow that we should not change it. The whole process of Parliament is about change.

The matter is one for my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor, and not for me. However, as the hon. Gentleman asked whether I had received any representations on it, the answer is no, and that is quite interesting, as I make myself available to members of my old profession as much as I can and still try to be active as a member of my own Inn.

Mr. Bercow

I am sure that the Home Secretary spoke only loosely when he said that the business of Parliament is about change. Will he confirm that we are not engaged in a process of continuous, Maoist revolution? Will he further confirm his awareness of and support for Lord Falkland's valuable dictum? It states: When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.

Mr. Straw

Of course I subscribe to that entirely prosaic observation, but the history of the House is one of change. It is important that changes imposed by the laws passed by the two Houses of Parliament be considered carefully rather than capriciously, not least because each of us faces death. We live in a changing world, where every day is different—and every day is different in this place.

Madam Deputy Speaker, may I take my first opportunity to welcome you to the Chair? I am glad to be tempted down that philosophical excursion, but I shall return to the point for fear of your calling me to order.

One of the Bill's primary purposes is to create a National Probation Service for England and Wales. All parties agree with that aim. The National Probation Service will enable us to ensure much greater consistency and to improve performance in protecting the public and reducing reoffending.

It is important that any such organisation should be able to appoint its senior executives centrally. Chief probation officers hold the key to the service's performance, and it is crucial that the right people be appointed in the right areas. It is accepted implicitly—there is no argument about it—that the current system of local appointment has failed. There are many excellent chief officers, but some are less good.

It has also been very unsatisfactory that the performance of the less good officers has been mirrored by that of the less good area boards, with considerable adverse consequences for the probation service as a whole. The previous Administration sought to wrestle with that problem by the establishment of national standards over a period of years. The Government have continued to take the matter forward over the past three and half years.

However, the performance of probation services with regard to breach varies over a most extraordinary range. The 1999 survey by the Association of Chief Officers of Probation shows that good services achieve in the high 80 per cent. range when it comes to enforcement of breaches, but I regret to say that, in Essex, only 8 per cent. of cases in which orders are breached three times are subject to any enforcement. No one can look at such evidence without being very concerned about the performance of the individual services and about the overall system that allowed such extraordinary variations in performance to happen.

As the House would expect, I have read the debate held in the other place on 31 October. I respect those who hold a view different from mine, but we have already made the step change involved in moving from a series of local services to a National Probation Service. The NPS is different, in kind and function, from those services that are, wholly or mainly, administered and run at a local level such as local authorities or the police service.

We are dealing with the enforcement of orders of the court. In Britain, our court provision is national. Of course, it is administered locally to a degree, but judges and justices of the peace are appointed centrally. One of the important elements in any fair system of criminal justice is that, within the same jurisdiction, there should be consistency between one court and another.

We have two agencies to enforce the orders of the court—the Prison Service, and the probation service. The Prison Service is a national body, run by a director general answerable to me. In turn, I am responsible and answerable for that service to the House. Governors of local prisons are appointed by the director general, and they have arrangements and relationships with local people, not least with those who give up so much of their time and effort to serve on the boards of visitors. However, the Prison Service could not deliver what we hope is a more consistent and effective service if it were not run nationally.

The other agency that must deliver consistency of enforcement under a national court system is the probation service. As I have indicated, one of its major problems has been a lack of consistency. When we weigh up the needs for consistency and for a high degree of local responsiveness, the balance of factors across the spectrum for the probation service is the same as that for the Prison Service. That balance may not necessarily be that required for other services, but I contend that the need for consistency calls for the establishment and enforcement of national standards. I am very clear about that.

I hope that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) does not think me patronising, but I thought that her experience as Minister with responsibility for prisons and probation, and her subsequent experience, allowed her to speak with great wisdom in previous debates about the way in which the prison and probation services can sometimes pull against each other. She has said that the services ought to operate as a seamless whole.

That is true, and very important. In my judgment, however, it would be more difficult to achieve that objective if we set up a management structure for the probation service that had those tensions built into it. The Prison Service operates as a clear national service, with appointees answerable to the director general. Of course it takes account of local circumstances and relations with boards of visitors, but that is the general framework. The amendment would mean that the attempt to establish a National Probation Service with a national chief officer would have the problem that the executives attempting to deliver the service would not be appointed by that chief officer—and, ultimately, by the Secretary of State.

Under the amendment, those executives would be appointed by the area boards. That is not a workable arrangement, and it would undermine the goal of establishing a National Probation Service, which is shared by hon. Members of all parties.

In the debate in the other place, Baroness Blatch talked about divided loyalties. I believe that some loyalties will be divided wherever one draws the line, but that more loyalties would be divided if one drew the line according to the amendment rather than according to the Bill.

There are plenty of examples of more centralist approaches being adopted. For instance, the previous Administration did so when they replaced regional health authorities with civil servants appointed as regional general managers as part of the national health service executive. The changes proposed in the Bill are being made for reasons that are similar, although not identical.

We want there to be local responsiveness, which can be dealt with by the local probation boards that the Bill also establishes.

Mr. Simon Hughes

The Home Secretary is entitled to a view that is entirely rational, but other people take a view based on the example of police chiefs. Outside London, they are appointed locally by police authorities as part of the criminal justice service. However, the right hon. Gentleman cited examples to show the wide variation of performance among probation services. Does not he accept that that argument is not necessarily one that supports a centralised service? Inspectorates—in the probation service, or in prisons or education—are meant to deal with such variations. Could not better results in terms of consistency of performance be achieved if the inspectorate of the probation service worked to ensure it? That would not require a central appointments system. The argument that ensuring consistency of performance requires centralisation does not hold up as a political conclusion.

Mr. Straw

With respect, I contend that, although good and effective inspection is a necessary condition for achieving greater consistency of performance, it is not sufficient in itself. Proper management structures are needed as well, and the Government submit that those structures should be as I have described.

The argument about chief officers of police does not really hang together. Although such officers are appointed by the police authorities, they go through the highly centralist funnel of the senior command course before appointment. To get on to that, there is a biennial selection process, with a high degree of screening and national moderation as to who forms the cadre from which those local police officers are appointed. In any event, although the police authority appoints them, they have very few responsibilities in respect of the conduct of the office of chief officer because he or she is operationally independent and answerable to the courts and the Secretary of State more often than to the police authority.

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull)

I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. In a previous existence, I was involved in the pursuit of coterminosity in the context of the Police and Magistrates Courts Act 1994 in which the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), was also involved. I am not unfamiliar with the pursuit of coterminosity between police, the probation service and prosecuting authorities—in fact, I am rather bound up in it. Have we lost sight of coterminosity of magistrates courts' jurisdictions as well? Why not do them all?

Mr. Straw

I am aware of the hon. Gentleman's experience. We are doing that as well, and I am sorry that I omitted to say that.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is already a precedent for central, as it were, control with local leaders in the Crown Prosecution Service as now restructured, in that the Director of Public Prosecutions appoints the local chief prosecutors? I have reservations about the Bill, so will my right hon. Friend undertake to ensure that the mistake of underfunding the Crown Prosecution Service when it was set up will not be repeated when the new service is set up?

Mr. Straw

I accept what my hon. Friend says in his opening remarks. There is a higher degree of local responsiveness under these arrangements than under the Crown Prosecution Service.

There were two major flaws in the way in which the CPS was established in 1985. One was to make it a national service without any regard to local need and to construct administrative arrangements in England and Wales that defied local consultation responsiveness. The second flaw was significantly to underfund the service. I am pleased to say that after a period in which the funding of the probation service went down in the closing years of the previous Administration—1997–98—we have been able to increase funding in the past two years, including this year. For the future, there will be a significant increase in funding because we recognise that a new service needs properly to be provided.

Mr. Bermingham

In asking that question, may I declare an interest as a member of the Bar? I forgot to mention it, but I think that everyone knows.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal)

That has been noted. Thank you.

7.15 pm
Miss Widdecombe

May I also congratulate you on your occupancy of the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, and welcome you? This is the first time that I have performed under your eagle eye, and it is indeed a great pleasure to see you.

Once again, I see some merit in the Government's proposals. I see genuine merit in the central appointment of chief probation officers. However, I also see many problems, and I am not convinced that the Secretary of State has addressed them sufficiently.

The first problem is that of clear line management. How will that be aided if the chief probation officers owe their loyalty to the Secretary of State who appoints them but are accountable to their local wards? That seems a recipe for confusion. I listened carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman said on that point, and he glossed over it rather. I would be grateful if he could return to the issue in his closing remarks.

As for parallels, chairmen of NHS trusts, for example, are appointed locally, as are chief constables. There does not seem to be an overwhelming case, at this stage, for having central appointments of chief probation officers. The right hon. Gentleman made the point with considerable force that if we ever wanted to amalgamate the prison and probation services, it would be sensible to have one system of appointments rather than two, and I understand that. However, we are not at that stage. The right hon. Gentleman has already said tonight, for example, that he does not want to join the inspectorate immediately. Therefore, it seems rather premature to appoint chief probation officers centrally.

I could see more merit in the Secretary of State's desire to take more direct control if he did not already have extensive powers. An amendment suggested in another place allows him to approve appointments, so he would still be able, effectively, to block an unsuitable choice. I remind the Home Secretary of the words of Baroness Blatch. She said in another place: What benefit … is there in one individual being contracted to a different employer? It makes no sense. The Secretary of State's powers are not impeded one iota, but what is important is that the chief officer … has a clear management line. Baroness Blatch went on to say: The Secretary of State will still retain the right of approval over the appointment of chief officers. He will still be able to appoint and remove boards. He will have control of 100 per cent. of funding and allocation of funding. He will set overall objectives for the service. He will receive reports from the inspectorate and will be given regular statistical and financial information, audit reports and annual reports from each board. He will also have power of direction and default. For goodness sake, those are sufficient powers!—[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 October 2000; Vol. 616, c. 1154–61.] Baroness Blatch also said in a further debate on the Bill: The relationship of the chief officer to other staff and to the board is also critical. For the employer of the chief officer to be the Secretary of State and the employers of all other staff to be the boards will create difficulties and possibly at times divided loyalties.—[Official Report, House of Lords,31 October 2000; Vol. 618, c. 801.] That was the essence of the argument in the other place and it is the essence of our argument tonight. However, I shall be kind to the Secretary of State, in a rare moment of benevolence towards him. If he can address the points that I have raised with sufficient rigour and conviction, I will not seek to divide the House.

Jackie Ballard

May I also congratulate you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and welcome you to your post?

As the Home Secretary said, this is a very important issue. We are asking questions such as who employs chief probation officers, to whom do they owe their loyalty and to whom are they accountable.

We have heard from the Home Secretary and from an ex-Home Office Minister, who warmed to the Home Secretary's proposals, but in the House of Lords a number of ex-Home Office Ministers spoke in favour of the amendments. They believed, as we do, that the Government's proposals are a recipe for confusion of accountability and authority, leaving local boards in an invidious position. The proposals would set up a management structure with an in-built tension—something that the Secretary of State said that he wanted to avoid. Perhaps it betrays the Government's secret—or not so secret—desire for a National Probation Service. I see that that woke up the Minister.

Mr. Boateng

It is not secret.

Jackie Ballard

Perhaps it is not so secret. However, I thought that the Government believed that there was an important role for local probation boards—so important that they want to appoint them all themselves—and therefore a role for local discretion, priorities and needs; otherwise it may as well be a nationalised probation service. Surely, local probation boards are to administer a local service, although they will take direct instructions from the Home Office, get their funding directly from it, and will have to adhere to national standards and priorities. However, those should be used and interpreted in the light of local needs; otherwise, why have local boards at all? If the Minister disagrees, perhaps he should intervene.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) referred to Lords amendment No. 121, which was accepted in the House of Lords, supported by many of my noble Friends. It would give the Secretary of State the right to approve those appointments, as happens with chief police officers. We should remind ourselves that the Secretary of State is to appoint all the members of local boards and can dismiss them or their chairmen if he thinks that they are not performing properly or not carrying out the tasks that he wishes them to perform. Surely, therefore, he can trust his appointees to make the right appointment in choosing their chief officer.

Mr. Bermingham

I have been listening carefully to the hon. Lady, and a thought has started to cross my mind. If we take the city of Birmingham and the next-door town of Wolverhampton, which are not in the same local government area, why should there be different needs in two adjacent towns? The hon. Lady's argument about the board meeting local needs has no great substance, so perhaps she will provide an explanation.

Jackie Ballard

It sounds as if the hon. Gentleman is arguing against having local boards at all, although I had understood that that was not his opinion. Surely he would accept that, at the very least, there are different patterns of criminal activity and varying availability of, for example, social housing and employment, in different parts of the country. I shall not take up the House's time going through all the different types of needs, but I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman took that line.

In Committee, the Minister challenged me to count the number of new powers that the Bill will give to the Secretary of State. I have to confess that I have not had enough idle moments to complete what he knows is a lengthy task. I suspect that he has not had enough idle moments, either. However, the power is a centralising power too far. The Central Probation Council, which is the probation employers' organisation, generally welcomes and supports the Bill, but it has strong feelings about this issue. In its briefing, it states: The Home Office consultations on the Prisons/Probations Review and "Joining Forces to Protect the Public" set out various options for the future governance of the probation service, including a national service with "local reference groups or advisory boards". The government did not choose that option. Instead, local probation boards retaining the full duties of employers of probation staff were decided upon. The council states: It is important to recognise the corporate status of the new boards and the responsibilities placed on them, not only by the Home Office, employment law, financial regulation, health and safety regulations, the Better Quality Services initiatives and the Human Rights Act. Chief officers will be placed in a difficult position as members of a local board who administer a local service but receive direct instructions from their Home Office boss.

The Home Secretary said that, for the effective performance of the service, it was important to be able to make the chief officer appointment centrally. However, in the national health service, chief executives are employed by local trusts and, as we have already heard, chief constables are employed by police authorities. The Home Secretary said that lack of consistency in the probation service had been a major problem in the past. As my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said, does that not suggest a failure of the inspectorate to monitor and report on adherence to national standards?

The Home Secretary talked about the centralised approvals system of chief police officers and said that it could not be compared to the system for probation officers. In responding to our debate, will he comment on the new assessment centre process for the appointment of chief probation officers? That process will be similar to that governing the appointment of chief police officers. Our debate on this group of amendments has been the longest so far tonight because it concerns the balance of power and lines of accountability, which are key issues in the Bill. I am disappointed that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald said that her party is not inclined to oppose the Government on this matter. Liberal Democrat Members are inclined to oppose the Government on their failure to support these Lords amendments and we hope that the right hon. Lady will join us in the Lobby.

Mr. Straw

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) set me the difficult test of answering her questions with sufficient rigour and conviction to satisfy her. She is on an each-way bet and, should she wish to vote with Liberal Democrat Members once I have finished, that would be consistent with what she said earlier.

I should like to deal with the key issue raised by the right hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard). When discussing institutional change, there is always a tendency to think that it is possible to lay down single lines of accountability and answerability and to think that there must be an algorithm that can establish those to the exclusion of other, more complex, arrangements. However, life is not like that, especially not in a large society in a big country of 55 million people, with 50 million living in England and Wales.

We are trying to do two things—run a national service and make it locally responsive—so there will be a tension. There is not a single line of accountability, but lines of accountability, answerability and responsiveness are drawn. That is no different in the public sector than in the private sector. I can think of plenty of examples in which large national companies wish to ensure that they maintain a national operational framework at the same time as they secure responsiveness to local need. They do that by having the chief executive of each of their subsidiaries appointed by the main board but, day by day, that chief executive is a member of the subsidiary local board, which, in turn, represents the local area or the specific interest of that local subsidiary company. There are other examples in the public sector.

Of course, we will look at parallels. However, in each service in the public sector from, at one end, highly local services such as planning and environmental health, to the armed forces at the other, there are different arrangements to provide for the balance between local responsiveness and national direction according to the needs and functions of each service. We must try to make a bespoke service.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald asked about clear management lines, which were also mentioned by Baroness Blatch. Under the arrangements, the lines of management are clear and the national chief officer will be appointed by the Secretary of State. In turn, the area chief officers will be formally appointed by the Secretary of State, but the national chief officer will have a great deal to do with those appointments. Those chief officers are answerable for what happens in their local areas. Moreover, they are full members of the local boards, to which they and other members are appointed by the Secretary of State, so they are all appointed on the same basis. As for the chairs of NHS trusts, may I tell the right hon. Lady that it is on the record that they are appointed by the Secretary of State, not appointed locally. Chief executives in the NHS are appointed locally, but the chairs are not, although they have a semi-executive position, which must be borne in mind.

That arrangement in the NHS delivers the right balance between clear management lines in a national service and local responsiveness. Local chief officers are appointed by the Secretary of State on the recommendation of the national chief officer, but are full members of their local board, take part in discussions at a local board level and, within the local board's terms of reference, must abide by its decisions. They could be outvoted on the local board.

I ask the House to consider what would happen in the reverse situation in which the chief officer was not a member of the local board but had been appointed by it and was subordinate to it. That must be so; one cannot be appointed by a local board and suddenly become a member of it. It would be odd for the local board to be the employer of one of its own members. Such an extraordinary arrangement would raise difficulties over any employment issue.

Jackie Ballard


7.30 pm
Mr. Straw

If the hon. Lady is about to mention head teachers, she is right and I am wrong. I knew that there was some flaw in my argument and it is unfortunate that it occurred to me after I had spoken. However, having chaired the board of governors of a large comprehensive, I have been through difficulties over employment of a head teacher—not the current one. Where there are problems with the employment of a head teacher, the fact that the head teacher is a member of the governing body that appointed him or her raises serious difficulties. I shall now make a good point on the basis of the facts, having made a not-so-good one without the backing of the facts.

If the alternative arrangement proposed by the Opposition were introduced, there would apparently—only apparently—be clearer lines of communication locally. However, it would be certain that national lines of communication would be much more confused. In effect, because the local board had appointed a person, that person would think himself or herself much more answerable to his or her employers than he or she was nationally accountable. That would undermine the concept of a national probation service.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Straw

In a moment.

Among other things, that would make it more difficult in practice to hold the Secretary of State to account for what was going on in an alleged national service. People would say that it was a national service in name but not in practice.

Mr. Dawson

My right hon. Friend has started to answer my point, but we are discussing an important national service and we need to address both consistency and cultural change. We may be moving away from what has been something of a social work service to one that has, as one of its principal aims, the protection of the public. Is it not an index of the Government's seriousness that they propose to manage that change in the way that they do?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend who brings to this issue a great deal of experience gained before he came into the House. I know of the interest that he has taken in these matters since he was elected.

More eloquently than I will, my hon. Friend made my next point in answer to the questions of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald on whether the powers that would remain if Baroness Blatch's amendments were to be included in the Bill would be sufficient for overall management of the service. There are powers of direction and powers, in one form or another, of effective veto. Given the task before us—the dynamic task of securing the cultural change in the probation service to which my hon. Friend referred—such negative powers of veto on appointment or to issue directions are necessary but not sufficient to achieve change. If we are to achieve cultural change against deep-seated conventions within the probation service and to raise the performance of the average and less-than-average to the level of the best, we need a more continuous process of management, which our structure will secure.

I do not suggest that we are proposing the perfect solution. There is not one. However, on balance, our proposals better achieve the overall aims agreed between all parties for a national probation service. They will also better secure proper accountability, effectiveness and consistency in the national probation service.

Question put, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment:—

The House divided: Ayes 324, Noes 142.

Division No. 332] [7.36 pm
Ainger, Nick Cawsey, Ian
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Chaytor, David
Allen, Graham Clapham, Michael
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Clark, Paul (Gillingham)
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms Hilary Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)
Ashton, Joe Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Atherton, Ms Candy Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Atkins, Charlotte Clelland, David
Banks, Tony Clwyd, Ann
Barnes, Harry Coaker, Vernon
Barron, Kevin Coffey, Ms Ann
Battle, John Cohen, Harry
Bayley, Hugh Coleman, Iain
Beard, Nigel Colman, Tony
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Begg, Miss Anne Cook, Rt Hon Robin (Livingston)
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough) Cooper, Yvette
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C) Corston, Jean
Bennett, Andrew F Cousins, Jim
Benton, Joe Cranston, Ross
Bermingham, Gerald Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)
Berry, Roger Cryer, John (Hornchurch)
Betts, Clive Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr Jack (Copeland)
Blears, Ms Hazel
Boateng, Rt Hon Paul Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Borrow, David Curtis-Thomas, Mrs Claire
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Darling, Rt Hon Alistair
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Darvill, Keith
Brinton, Mrs Helen Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) Davidson, Ian
Browne, Desmond Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Buck, Ms Karen Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Burden, Richard Dawson, Hilton
Burgon, Colin Dean, Mrs Janet
Butler, Mrs Christine Denham, John
Byers, Rt Hon Stephen Dismore, Andrew
Caborn, Rt Hon Richard Dobbin, Jim
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth) Donohoe, Brian H
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Doran, Frank
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Drew, David
Campbell-Savours, Dale Drown, Ms Julia
Caplin, Ivor Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
Casale, Roger Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Caton, Martin Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Edwards, Huw Kumar, Dr Ashok
Efford, Clive Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Ellman, Mrs Louise Lammy, David
Ennis, Jeff Lawrence, Mrs Jackie
Field, Rt Hon Frank Laxton, Bob
Fitzpatrick, Jim Lepper, David
Fitzsimons, Mrs Lorna Leslie, Christopher
Flint, Caroline Levitt, Tom
Flynn, Paul Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Follett, Barbara Linton, Martin
Foster, Rt Hon Derek Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings) Lock, David
Foster, Michael J (Worcester) Love, Andrew
Foulkes, George McAvoy, Thomas
Gardiner, Barry McCabe, Steve
George, Bruce (Walsall S) McCafferty, Ms Chris
Gerrard, Neil McDonagh, Siobhain
Gibson, Dr Ian Macdonald, Calum
Godman, Dr Norman A McDonnell, John
Godsiff, Roger McFall, John
Goggins, Paul McGuire, Mrs Anne
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E) McIsaac, Shona
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) McKenna, Mrs Rosemary
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) McNamara, Kevin
Grocott, Bruce McNulty, Tony
Grogan, John MacShane, Denis
Hain, Peter Mactaggart, Fiona
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale) McWalter, Tony
Hall, Patrick (Bedford) Mahon, Mrs Alice
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE) Mallaber, Judy
Hanson, David Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N) Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich) Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Hepburn, Stephen Marshall-Andrews, Robert
Heppell, John Martlew, Eric
Hewitt, Ms Patricia Meacher, Rt Hon Michael
Hill, Keith Merron, Gillian
Hodge, Ms Margaret Michael, Rt Hon Alun
Home Robertson, John Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Hood, Jimmy Miller, Andrew
Hoon, Rt Hon Geoffrey Mitchell, Austin
Hope, Phil Moffatt, Laura
Hopkins, Kelvin Moonie, Dr Lewis
Howarth, Alan (Newport E) Moran, Ms Margaret
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Howells, Dr Kim Morley, Elliot
Hoyle, Lindsay Morris, Rt Hon Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Morris, Rt Hon Sir John (Aberavon)
Humble, Mrs Joan
Hurst, Alan Mountford, Kali
Hutton, John Mowlam, Rt Hon Marjorie
Iddon, Dr Brian Mudie, George
Illsley, Eric Mullin, Chris
Ingram, Rt Hon Adam Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead) Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough) Murphy, Rt Hon Paul (Torfaen)
Jamieson, David Naysmith, Dr Doug
Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle) Norris, Dan
Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield) O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
O'Neill, Martin
Jones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn) Organ, Mrs Diana
Jones, Mrs Fiona (Newark) Osborne, Ms Sandra
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) Palmer, Dr Nick
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak) Pearson, Ian
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S) Pickthall, Colin
Jowell, Rt Hon Ms Tessa Pike, Peter L
Keeble, Ms Sally Plaskitt, James
Kemp, Fraser
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree) Pollard, Kerry
Khabra, Piara S Pond, Chris
Kidney, David Pound, Stephen
Kilfoyle, Peter Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth) Prescott, Rt Hon John
Kingham, Ms Tess Prosser, Gwyn
Purchase, Ken Straw, Rt Hon Jack
Quin, Fit Hon Ms Joyce Stringer, Graham
Quinn, Lawrie Stuart, Ms Gisela
Rammell, Bill Sutcliffe, Gerry
Raynsford, Nick Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Reid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N)
Roche, Mrs Barbara Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Rogers, Allan Temple-Morris, Peter
Rooker, Rt Hon Jeff Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Rooney, Terry Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Timms, Stephen
Rowlands, Ted Tipping, Paddy
Roy, Frank Todd, Mark
Ruane, Chris Touhig, Don
Ruddock, Joan Trickett, Jon
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester) Truswell, Paul
Ryan, Ms Joan Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Salter, Martin Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Sarwar, Mohammad Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Savidge, Malcolm Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Sawford, Phil Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Sedgemore, Brian Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Shaw, Jonathan Tynan, Bill
Sheerman, Barry Walley, Ms Joan
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert Ward, Ms Claire
Shipley, Ms Debra Wareing, Robert N
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S) Watts, David
Singh, Marsha White, Brian
Skinner, Dennis Whitehead, Dr Alan
Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E) Wicks, Malcolm
Smith, Angela (Basildon) Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S)
Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale) Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Wills, Michael
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch) Wilson, Brian
Smith, John (Glamorgan) Winnick, David
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Snape, Peter Wood, Mike
Soley, Clive Woodward, Shaun
Starkey, Dr Phyllis Woolas, Phil
Steinberg, Gerry Worthington, Tony
Stevenson, George Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Stewart, David (Inverness E) Wright, Tony (Cannock)
Stewart, Ian (Eccles) Wyatt, Derek
Stinchcombe, Paul Tellers for the Ayes:
Stoate, Dr Howard Mr. Jim Dowd and
Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin Mr. Greg Pope.
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife)
Allan, Richard
Amess, David Cash, William
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James Chidgey, David
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Chope, Christopher
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Clappison, James
Baldry, Tony Clark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh)
Ballard, Jackie Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Beggs, Roy Collins, Tim
Beith, Rt Hon AJ Cormack, Sir Patrick
Bell, Martin (Tatton) Cotter, Brian
Bercow, John Cran, James
Blunt, Crispin Curry, Rt Hon David
Boswell, Tim Davey, Edward (Kingston)
Brady, Graham Davis, Fit Hon David (Haltemprice)
Brake, Tom Day, Stephen
Brand, Dr Peter Donaldson, Jeffrey
Brazier, Julian Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen
Breed, Colin Duncan Smith, Iain
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Evans, Nigel
Browning, Mrs Angela Fabricant, Michael
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Flight, Howard
Burnett, John Forth, Rt Hon Eric
Burns, Simon Foster, Don (Bath)
Burstow, Paul Fox, Dr Liam
Butterfill, John Gale, Roger
George, Andrew (St Ives) Nicholls, Patrick
Gibb, Nick Norman, Archie
Gidley, Sandra Oaten, Mark
Gill, Christopher O'Brien, Stephen (Eddisbury)
Gillan, Mrs Cheryl Öpik, Lembit
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Ottaway, Richard
Gray, James Page, Richard
Green, Damian Paice, James
Greenway, John Prior, David
Grieve, Dominic Randall, John
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie Redwood, Rt Hon John
Hammond, Philip Rendel, David
Ham's, Dr Evan Robathan, Andrew
Harvey, Nick Robertson, Laurence
Hawkins, Nick St Aubyn, Nick
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome) Sanders, Adrian
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot) Shepherd, Richard
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N) Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Spicer, Sir Michael
Jenkin, Bernard Spring, Richard
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham) Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Keetch, Paul Streeter, Gary
Key, Robert Stunell, Andrew
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater) Swayne, Desmond
Kirkwood, Archy Syms, Robert
Laing, Mrs Eleanor Tapsell, Sir Peter
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Lansley, Andrew Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E) Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Lilley, Rt Hon Peter Taylor, Sir Teddy
Livsey, Richard Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion)
Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham) Tonge, Dr Jenny
Llwyd, Elfyn Trend, Michael
Loughton, Tim Tyler, Paul
Luff, Peter Tyrie, Andrew
MacGregor, Rt Hon John Viggers, Peter
McIntosh, Miss Anne Waterson, Nigel
MacKay, Rt Hon Andrew Webb, Steve
Maclean, Rt Hon David Whitney, Sir Raymond
McLoughlin, Patrick Whittingdale, John
Malins, Humfrey Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Mates, Michael Willis, Phil
Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
May, Mrs Theresa Yeo, Tim
Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute) Tellers for the Noes:
Moore, Michael Mr. Bob Russell and
Moss, Malcolm Sir Robert Smith.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Lords amendment disagreed to.

Lords amendment No. 40 agreed to

Lords amendment: No. 41, in page 8, line 37, leave out paragraph (b)

Mr. Straw

I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 42, 43, 135, 137 and 138 and the Government motions to disagree thereto.

Mr. Straw

This debate is about similar principles to those that we have just discussed. Essentially, it is about the overall management and structure of the National Probation Service, but our arguments in this case are even stronger than those on the previous group of amendments, which was about who should appoint and employ the local director under the national director for the service.

We believe that it would be wrong for local probation boards to hold land and that it would be inconsistent for them to do so in the context of a national organisation. Under the Bill, local probation boards will exist to deliver local services, to make a major contribution to protecting the public and to reduce reoffending. They should not have to dissipate that effort to deal with real estate. It is hard to discern what special qualities people appointed to a local probation board to help to contribute to the responsiveness of the service at a local level will necessarily have in respect of property holding.

It is worth bearing in mind the problems that currently arise. One probation committee chairman told my right hon. Friend the Minister of State that up to half of his committee meetings were spent dealing with property matters. That is not the purpose of boards, and neither should it be. The subsidiary point is that we would expect to manage the estate more efficiently and effectively from the centre. It is one sector in which real economies of scale can be obtained.

A further point relates to the comments of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) on how better to secure co-operation and co-ordination between the Prison Service and the local probation service. Much of that better co-ordination and co-operation will arise when they are working in the same place and it will be much easier to secure their operation from the same place if it is possible, as appropriate, to amalgamate offices and so on. That can be done far more easily through the National Probation Service than through the convoluted procedures that would be necessary if the land were held locally.

Let me deal with the canard that was raised in the other place—that if real estate were held by the National Probation Service, whenever local staff needed to change a light bulb, repair a leaking tap or make another repair they would have to seek authorisation from London. That is nonsense. Such matters would be dealt with locally and the day-to-day management of the properties that local probation boards occupy would be for them. I hope that the House accepts that there is a world of difference between buying and selling property and dealing with basic maintenance. I ask hon. Members to disagree with the Lords amendments.

Mr. Bercow

I welcome you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to the Chair and congratulate you on your appointment.

The Home Secretary is a past master of uttering soothing bromides to reassure any Member who does not readily share his point of view. I am sure, however, that he will not be unduly surprised to learn that, despite the mellifluous tones in which he begged to differ with the noble Lords, Conservative Members are not persuaded. The purpose of the amendments is to allow local probation boards the opportunity to hold or manage land. The Home Secretary referred to the importance of probation boards, and it is arguable that their functions render it appropriate that they should at least have proper discretion over the type of property that they use and over variations in the use of that property. Many active in the service have suggested to us that they believe that that discretionary entitlement, which they might not choose to exercise, is important. They are concerned about an unnecessary and, arguably, draconian confiscation of power by the Government.

The Government have hinted that there could be major restructuring of the property held by the probation service once that property is taken into the ownership of the Home Office. The Home Secretary referred gently to that a moment ago and contented himself with the modest observation—we know that "modesty" is his middle name—that benefits could result from the estate being run more effectively, as he put it, from the centre.

The Home Secretary is aware that I hold him in the highest esteem and that I do not intend unduly to damage his reputation or cause him to blush. He knows that I regard him as the best of a pretty bad bunch of Cabinet Ministers. He is unfailingly courteous, he attends to the argument and he is the closest approximation to a human being that I have yet encountered in a member of Her Majesty's new Labour Government. Although I think that he has many merits, I do not regard him as a suitable estate agent. I have never thought of him as an appropriate chief executive of Hambro Countrywide. It does not seem to me or my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) that it is obvious—to put it mildly—that the control of the estate should be vested in the centre.

As we seek to establish the entitlement of local probation boards to exercise discretion, it is important briefly to rehearse the arguments to which the Home Secretary referred and which were uttered in the other place last month. I was particularly struck by the observations of my noble Friend Baroness Blatch, who discussed the issue on 31 October. She referred to the fact that the Government appeared to have in mind great savings and structural benefits from reorganisation. She was doubtful about that and referred to several letters that Lord Bassam, who speaks for the Government in the other place, had recently sent to interested Members. In paragraph 28 of one letter, he said: We [the Government] are convinced, however, that there are sound reasons for concentrating ownership and overall management of the Probation estate in the national directorate. What heady brew did Lord Bassam offer us in defence of that proposition? It amounted to a twofold assertion—nothing better than that. He said that the Government believed that accounting responsibility will be placed squarely on the Government— as though that were a benefit. It is not entirely clear to me that placing responsibility for accounting in the hands of the Government rather than with the local probation board, which is directly affected by financial management, is necessarily an advantage. His letter added that there will be better opportunity to control investment procurement and development so as to make the best of all the assets of the National Probation Service. Methinks I hear overtones of the old National Enterprise Board. There is a good deal here about nationalisation, even though the word did not trip off the Home Secretary's tongue. He is nothing if not new Labour writ large. He is the emblem of the project, so obviously he did not vouchsafe nationalisation, but that is what the Government have in mind. They have a curious justification—which is also somewhat offensive to the local probation service—for their proposed nationalisation of the property estate. They have a notion that property will be better run centrally than if it is run by people who are directly responsible for delivering a quality service.

8 pm

Paragraph 29 of Lord Bassam's letter states: It is also clear that the existing arrangements have worked far from well. In support of that dubious proposition, a survey by Donaldson's, a firm of chartered surveyors, is cited. It was conducted in 1999 and concluded that there was inadequate management of the estate despite excessive staffing and that a fair proportion of it was unsuitable for purpose and in poor repair. I am doubtful about the reference to excessive staffing.

The Home Secretary cavilled at the suggestion that, as a result of the proposed change, control over relatively minor and prosaic matters, such as whether to insert a different light bulb, would be sapped from the local probation boards and conferred instead on a central leviathan. That may be so, but it is clear that the Government are considering rationalising the property estate and possibly reducing the number of people who are engaged at local level. What else are we to infer from the reference to excessive staffing?

Many people are not convinced that staffing at local level is excessive. If the Government are convinced otherwise, they should plainly and openly say so. They should not dress up their intentions in a centralising measure that gives the impression that the Government regard themselves as a property manager. Governments of both colours have a truly risible record of interference in the management of property.

I referred to the belief of Baroness Blatch that the management of local property, offices and interview rooms is best vested in local probation boards. Needless to say, despite the quizzical expression on the Minister of State's face, Baroness Blatch was not alone in expressing those concerns. She was joined, as she was at other times during the other place's Committee stage, by Lord Phillips of Sudbury. It was significant that Lord Phillips and his noble Friends chose to support the amendments tabled by Baroness Blatch. Specifically, Lord Phillips observed: Far from relieving local probation boards of concern and worry, the proposals— which the Government are advancing— 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. Lord Phillips continued: 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. That is such a common-sense observation that only an extraordinarily clever person would choose to disagree with it, but, true to form, Lord Bassam did so. He seemed genuinely alarmed by the notion that local probation boards might retain and be granted discretion in the management of property.

The most curious aspect of the debate was that towards the end of the exchanges, apparently irritated with the observations of Baroness Blatch, Lord Bassam said: My Lords, sometimes I believe that the noble Baroness does not understand that crime is a national and international phenomenon.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 31 October 2000; Vol. 618, c. 818–821.] There is not the slightest disagreement or uncertainty about that. The issue is, however, who manages the local resource—the land, the estate and the rooms, including their distribution and the functions to which they are put. We believe that there is much merit in leaving maximum discretion at the local level. We are worried by what seems to be a large-scale and, as far as we can judge it, an unnecessary arrogation of power to the centre.

To avoid doubt, and so that the Conservative position is clearly on the record, I should say that we are not arguing this issue as a great matter of principle.

Mr. Boateng


Mr. Bercow

The right hon. Gentleman says "Ah" as though I had vouchsafed spectacular new information, which I have not. The issue is one of practicality. I yield to no one in my respect for and preoccupation with practicality. He can chunter disapprovingly from a sedentary position if the mood takes him, but I am simply saying that if the Government were able to advance a credible case, preferably with a costing attached, to demonstrate that the proposed changes would create savings that could more effectively be used for the purpose of implementing the responsibilities of the probation service at local level, we would be happy to concede. In short, if the Home Secretary proved his case, and argued by using evidence rather than advocacy, we would be content. However, it is not sensible to support and undertake a major accretion of power to the centre unless a proven benefit will result from that arrogation of power. We have not been so persuaded.

I have been very discriminating in presenting my argument because there are many other important issues to address. I could have quoted chapter and verse at substantially greater length, no doubt irritating the Minister of State in the process. I have resisted the sore temptation to dilate further on the subject. Suffice it to say that what the Government are proposing is not necessary. What my noble Friends argued for in the other place, supported by Lord Phillips of Sudbury, was sensible, moderate and justified. Indeed, it was, if I may politely so suggest, in accordance with the dictates of common sense. It is that proposition that I commend to the House.

Jackie Ballard

I shall be even briefer than the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow).

The three main assets or local resources that local probation boards will need to control to fulfil their statutory responsibilities are staff, finance and premises. Some people already doubt the ability of boards to secure the compliance of staff with their instructions in the event of a conflict between the board and the chief officer. We should bear it in mind that it was made clear in our earlier debate that the board and the chief officer will be appointed by the Secretary of State.

Funds will be provided only by the Home Office and it is now proposed that premises from which the boards' responsibilities are exercised will also be owned by the Home Office, and managed, presumably, by another organisation with which the board will not have a contractual relationship. The Government's proposals on property will fundamentally weaken the role of boards. They must have some power with which to exercise their responsibilities. As we delve deeper into the Bill, it becomes clearer that local boards will have responsibilities without much power, and I wonder who will want to serve on them.

The Secretary of State said that it is more effective to manage and control the estate centrally. I recall that two or three years ago some newspapers and others described him as a liberal. I do not know whether he wanted that description—

Mr. Straw

It is true.

Jackie Ballard

Presumably that means that the right hon. Gentleman welcomes and wants that description. If he wants to deserve it, he will have to curb his desire to centralise everything. It might be a matter of practicality for the official Opposition to oppose centralisation on this subject, but it is a matter of principle for Liberals to oppose centralisation in general.

Mr. Hawkins

The hon. Lady tempts me to ask whether she has in mind the Home Secretary's condemnation of those he described in a famous speech as Hampstead liberals. He has subsequently reinforced that condemnation, as did his hon. Friends in Committee.

Jackie Ballard

I must confess that I do not know any liberals in Hampstead. I am sure that there are many liberals there, but I do not know them personally, so I cannot comment on what they are like or whether they are more or less liberal than the Home Secretary.

Mr. Bercow

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Jackie Ballard

I do not think that Madam Deputy Speaker will allow us to go too far with this interchange, but I shall give way.

Mr. Bercow

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I know that she is always meticulous in the representation of the arguments of other right hon. and hon. Members. May I therefore point out in all seriousness that although the burden of our argument rests on practicality, there are, of course, issues of principle relating to the diffusion of power? We say that the principle of the diffusion of power is not an absolute.

If it could be shown that the benefits that would flow from centralisation were so enormous that they outweighed the general principle of decentralisation, we should be prepared to abide by the evidence. In this case, however, the Government want to centralise and do not have a decent argument, so the position that they are advancing is nonsense on stilts.

Jackie Ballard

The activities of the previous Government do not suggest that diffusion of power was an important principle for them. They might have undergone a damascene conversion that I had not noticed—[Interruption.] I do not know whether the Hansard reporters heard that. The hon. Member for Buckingham said that he was not a great enthusiast for the previous Government. Perhaps we should leave that comment there.

The Secretary of State said that we need a nationally managed estate to deliver an effective service, but the national health service estate is not nationally managed: local health authorities and local trusts make decisions about the disposal of that estate depending on changing needs and changing means of delivering a service. They can then decide what to do with the proceeds and how to reinvest them in the local service.

I am not at all convinced by the Secretary of State's arguments, but he might be able to convince me if he can point to a precedent for the desperate need for a nationally managed estate to deliver an effective service

Mr. Straw

I place on record my sincere gratitude for the remarks of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who sought to damn me with great praise. We have a mutual regard. When I was thinking about complimenting him on his appointment, I considered saying that I regarded him as one of the finest adornments of the Opposition Benches to have been elected in 1997, but I did not want to damage his career. However, since he sought to do that to me, I now put it on the record.

The hon. Gentleman skated backwards and forwards, saying on the one hand that all he was doing was applying common sense. I agree that common sense needs to be applied in the case that we are considering, but if all that someone says is that it is a matter of practicality, there is not much behind the argument. On the other hand, he went in for hyperbolic adjectives, which suggested that there was a good deal of emotion behind his argument—for example, the use of the word "nationalisation".

The hon. Gentleman said that the proposal was, arguably, draconian. As I sometimes have to point out, the man who gave his name to that adjective was Draco. He was the chief magistrate in Athens in the 7th century BC, and is remembered for the fact that for virtually every offence in the Athenian criminal code he prescribed death. From that derives the word "draconian".

However one describes an argument about whether the National Probation Service or local area boards should hold the land, to suggest that either or both of those arrangements is draconian is pushing the meaning of the word a tad too far.

8.15 pm

At the beginning of his speech, the hon. Gentleman spoke in tentative terms, saying that it was at least arguable that those functions might be undertaken at a local level, rather than at national level. It is a matter of degree. The decision to vest the land in the Secretary of State flows from the establishment of the National Probation Service, which we are trying better to manage.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that that could be seen as a covert way—he did not use that phrase—of securing cuts in staffing. One of the problems from which the probation service has suffered significantly in the years up to 1999–2000 is underfunding. In 1995–96, expenditure, in cash, was £420 million. That rose to £435 million in 1996–97 and, under a budget set by the Conservatives, dropped to £428 million. I managed to get it back, under the Conservative spending plans, to £435 million, but it was tight. It then started to rise, to £453 million in 1999–2000 and to £480 million in the current financial year.

We are planning for expenditure to increase from the current baseline by about £97 million in 2001–02, by £139 million in 2002–03 and by £170 million in 2003–04. We are putting a great deal of extra money into the probation service, because we want to make the service better. We do not have the margins, we do not want money wasted and we think that there are savings to be made in the overall management of the real estate in the probation service by the property being vested nationally.

I say to the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) that I do not know enough about the matter, but it is arguable whether the arrangements for the vesting of NHS property in a variety of organisations work better than those that would apply if it were vested in a single institution.

The hon. Member for Buckingham said that we proposed that the property of the probation service was "better run" centrally than locally. We are not discussing the running of the property—the fixing of roofs or the day-to-day management of the property. Of course that should be in the hands of the local area boards, and it will be.

We are discussing much bigger issues—the disposal and acquisition of property—and there is no doubt that the system can be better managed at national level. Why? Without national arrangements, a local area board could become committed to a particular office or a particular piece of real estate, and arguments could develop. Of course, local area boards are entitled to their view, but in a national service that we are trying to make more efficient, someone has to decide, and ultimately that should be the Secretary of State.

When we compare the running of the probation service with other services, we should bear in mind that in practice the accountability of the local probation board or committees to anyone other than those committees has been very thin. The wider public, local newspapers, Members of Parliament and local councillors do not examine what goes on from day to day. The circle is pretty self-contained.

If there was a good argument between a local area board and the National Probation Service about whether a property should be disposed of, that would be better ventilated in this place, where the local Member of Parliament could question the Secretary of State. I do not say that in a mellifluous way. I am not trying to pour bromide over the argument. I am saying that we have thought about the matter and that, on balance, we believe that the proposed arrangement would be better. I hope that it commends itself to the House and to the other place.

Mr. Bercow

I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way, and I note the terms in which he makes the case. He suggests that local probation boards operate within a relatively closed environment and that there is no significant opportunity for local residents or the media to voice their concerns about their policies. Does he accept that if centralisation is to take place there must be a clear, publicised mechanism whereby local disapproval of national intentions is formally taken into account and respected in the decision-making process?

Mr. Straw


Lords amendment disagreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 42 to 44 disagreed to.

Amendments (a) and (b) to the words so restored to the Bill agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 45 and 46 disagreed to.

Lords amendment No. 47 agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 48 to 50 disagreed to.

Amendments (a) to (f) to the words so restored to the Bill agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 51 agreed to.