HL Deb 28 November 2000 vol 619 cc1269-85

39 Clause 18, page 8, line 28, leave out ("(other than a chief probation officer)")

The Commons disagreed to this amendment for the following reason—

39A Because the Commons believe that the changes proposed to he made in connection with a chief officer of a local probation board are not appropriate.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 39, to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 39A.

In moving this amendment, it may be helpful to the House if I begin with a brief word about the procedure to be followed. Grouped with this amendment is the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, which asks the House to reject the Commons reason and to insist on the original amendment which was carried on Report in this House.

When I have finished speaking, the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, will speak to his amendment. The debate will then take place on that amendment and, at the end of the debate, the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, will decide whether or not to press his amendment. I hope that, by then, I will have convinced him to withdraw it and that the Commons reason will be accepted. However, I should make clear what will happen if the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, decides to press his amendment.

If the noble Lord's amendment is carried, the Commons reason will fall and the House will have decided to insist on the original Amendment. No. 39 made on Report. If, on the other hand, the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, is defeated, the implication is that the House will then agree to the Commons reason. Thus, I expect there to be only one Division; and on that vote, in simple terms, a vote for the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, is a vote for insistence; and a vote against his amendment is a vote for the Commons reasons for non-insistence. I hope that explanation has been helpful to your Lordships' House.

This group of amendments deals with the appointment of chief officers. At Report stage, your Lordships changed the arrangements so as to make chief officers appointable by local boards with the approval of the Secretary of State rather than by the Secretary of State. The other place restored the original provisions of the Bill, subject to amendments to tidy up the drafting and to reflect the change of description from "local board" to "local probation board", which was made by your Lordships and accepted by the other place. The government amendments invite your Lordships now to agree with the Commons, subject to the significant protection of local interests inserted by government Amendment No. 121B, which I shall describe in detail in a few moments. Amendment No. 121C, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, would maintain the disagreement.

At earlier stages of the Bill, your Lordships clearly made your views known on the appointment of chief officers. You invited the other place to reconsider the matter. They have done so and have returned the measures for further consideration by your Lordships. While your Lordships may not be persuaded by all the arguments from the other place, I urge you to bear in mind that the measure was re-inserted in the Bill by a substantial majority. I hope that that, together with the additional safeguard provided by Amendment No. 121B, will enable me to convince your Lordships that you should not stand in the way of this important Bill.

These amendments are fundamental to the Bill. Lengthy discussions took place during the passage of the Bill, both here and in another place, on the position of chief officers. The Government have listened carefully to the arguments and—

4.15 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. We do not have Amendment No. 121B in our papers. I have now been handed the amendment on a separate piece of paper.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that. I had a feeling of dread and horror as she said that. I shall continue with the thread of my argument. The Government have listened very carefully to the arguments and have concluded that our original proposal, that chief officers should be statutory office holders appointed by the Secretary of State, remains the best option. The proposal that chief officers should be employees of boards and appointed by them, despite being members of those same boards, all of whose other members have been appointed by the Secretary of State, would in our view seriously undermine the establishment of a national service and confuse national accountability. We wish to see chief officers fulfilling the role of effective chief executives of local services, directly accountable to the Secretary of State through the national director.

I shall attempt to summarise the arguments against appointment by the Secretary of State and in favour of the amendments agreed by your Lordships on Report. They fall into two categories. The first contends that local is best and that it is an essential function of local probation boards to appoint their own chief officers, albeit subject to the approval of the Secretary of State. I understand that argument. However, I believe that it is misguided. Crime does not recognise local authority or national boundaries. If we are to receive an effective response, we need to take a wider view of these matters, in a national context and not in terms of traditional, local boxes.

This Bill seeks to create a national probation service, organised into 42 local areas, to match those of the other criminal justice agencies. A national service would offer several advantages: greater consistency in dealing with offenders, so providing more effective and rigorous enforcement of community sentences; centrally-led offending behaviour programmes, based on real evidence that they work, and implemented in accordance with carefully designed procedures; a national risk management strategy, under which all services operate in accordance with the same procedures and use the same commonly understood terminology. But, of course, national services have always to be delivered locally. Therefore, it is inevitable that there should be both a national and a local focus for the service. Achieving a balance between the two is a matter of judgment. In our view, the principal focus must be national, in order to achieve the ambitious but realistic national targets for reducing re-offending that the Government have set for the service, and to give the service the best chance of protecting the public.

The existing system, under which individual areas appoint their own chief officers, has failed. While there are many excellent chief probation officers, there are also some who are far from effective. One needs only to consider the variation in performance and the excessive variation in standards. For example, only 8 per cent of offenders who should have been breached were returned to court in one area, against 89 per cent in another. We need greater consistency. One way of achieving that is through the close control of the appointment of senior managers. The Government believe that the key executive in each area—the chief probation officer—should be appointed centrally. Consistency on appointments will lead to greater consistency in management, which will in turn lead to greater consistency in standards of performance.

However, we agree that it is important that the local probation board should be involved in the selection of its chief officer. For that reason, during the current round of recruitment we have included the chairman designate, or other appropriate representatives from the local probation board, on the selection panel for every chief officer post to be filled. In that way, we can ensure a powerful local input to the process. That is the principle enshrined in our new Amendment No. 121B, which inserts a new sub-paragraph into paragraph 2 of Schedule 1. It requires that there should be a proper selection panel for all the Home Secretary's appointments occurring after the national probation service comes into being. It further requires that, in the case of chief officers, the local probation board should be represented on the panel. We believe that that is an important safeguard for local interests. I hope that the whole House will welcome it.

The second category of arguments against the Government's position is what I shall refer to as the managerial argument. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and others have argued that the Government's proposals would create confused accountability. We do not agree. In our view, the lines are clear. The chief officer will be a member of the board and will be expected to assist in creating and implementing the board's policy. His executive membership of the board makes him clearly responsible for the deployment of the board's staff. But his own line management accountability will be to the National Director of the Probation Service and, ultimately, to the Secretary of State. Any conflict between the Board and the Secretary of State will be resolved by means of a direction to the board from the Secretary of State, under the terms of paragraph 12 of Schedule 1.

The amendments carried in this House on Report would create more confusion. They would provide for the boards to appoint one of their own number. That would result in a very peculiar relationship. I am disappointed that the arguments in favour of the status quo have been sustained as long as they have, with little evidence to support them.

It has been pointed out, unfavourably, that there is no direct precedent for the appointment procedure favoured by the Government. That is true. However, there is no other structure quite like this one. It is a specific solution designed for a specific service. It combines the consistency of a national service with the local responsiveness of area organisation. An essential part of that system is that chief officers should be appointed by the Secretary of State. To achieve that effect, I urge your Lordships to accept the amendments made in the other place, along with the new government Amendment No. 121B.

Of this group, Amendments Nos. 39A, 45A, 46A, 48A, 49A, 121A, 122A, 123A and 124A, taken together, would restore the Bill to its original position on this subject before the amendments were carried on Report. Without the amendments, it will not be possible to establish a national probation service from next April. Much needed reforms will be delayed and the establishment of CAFCASS will be at risk. The proposed fundamental change to the new structure could not be achieved in the time available, and transitional arrangements would be required until boards could appoint chief officers. It seems inevitable that committees would need to remain in place for some time. In our view, that would hamper the transfer of staff and other assets involved in family court welfare to CAFCASS. From a practical point of view, the amendments simply do not work.

Amendments Nos. 44A, 50A and 50D are technical, tidy up the drafting and ensure consistency of phraseology throughout the Bill. Amendments Nos. 44B, 50B, 50C, 50E and 130A make changes to ensure that, wherever the words "local board" appear in the Bill they are changed to "local probation board". This reflects further amendments passed by your Lordships which the Government have accepted.

I commend all these amendments to the House and hope that your Lordships will now agree to the text determined in another place subject only to the Government's new amendments. There is no doubt that the arrangements for the national probation service have been enhanced by the debates in your Lordships' House but in our view the time has come when we must draw a line. We have made changes to try to meet the understandable concerns of noble Lords. While some will no doubt see that as the Government's hand being forced, I should prefer to take the line advanced earlier in our proceedings by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that this is an example of the revising Chamber doing its work well. But there is only so much revision that can be done without seriously undermining the new national structure we wish to see established and I believe that we have reached that point.

The appointment of chief officers is a fundamental issue and the Government cannot move beyond the very real changes that we have accepted to the Bill and now propose through Amendment No. 121B. I commend to the House this and all the other government amendments. I hope that he noble Lord, Lord Dholakia will not press his amendment but, as I have already mentioned, if there is a Division and his amendment is carried, the Government's amendments will fall and the House will have decided to insist on its original amendments.

I urge your Lordships to accept the Government's amendment in lieu and let the Bill pass.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 39 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 39A.—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, this appears to be the appropriate time for me to speak to my Amendment No. 121C. Let me first concede that the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill is an important piece of legislation. We should never lose sight of the various provisions in the Bill which are designed to take into account issues of concern highlighted in recent times. The Bill is more effective now than when it was first introduced in your Lordships' House. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and her colleagues on the Conservative Benches and we on the Liberal Democrat Benches must share a great deal of credit.

Equally, I believe that after losing successive votes during the passage of the Bill the Government have looked at our concerns and offered solutions. For that, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Bassam and Lord Bach, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn.

There is no fundamental disagreement on three of the four issues which need resolution. That has already been identified. We are content with the assurances on the matter relating to hostels. However, I hope that the noble Lord will take into account some of the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Match. We have no concerns about the chief inspectors of prisons and probation. We are pleased that there is no intention to combine the two posts and I thank the Minister for his assurance. But it would have saved so much time if that ill-conceived idea had not been floated in the first place. Let us hope that it is buried for good.

Then there is the matter of who owns and manages land used by the national probation service. Again, if the Minister were to clarify the Government's position as indicated to me in his letter of 27th November there is no dispute that local probation boards will be responsible for the management and maintenance of the buildings they occupy. I look forward to having that assurance.

There now remains one matter which needs to be resolved. It relates to the procedures for appointing chief probation officers. There is a fundamental disagreement between the Government and ourselves on this matter. The Government's key objective is the successful creation and management of a national service. We subscribe to that aim. They see the appointment of the chief probation officer by the Secretary of State as crucial to that aim. We disagree with them. We believe in local accountability. The system has worked well and has delivered what was asked of it. To take its chief officers under central control and allowing the boards to appoint other staff is a recipe for disaster. I cannot see any precedent and the Minister has agreed that there is no precedent for such action with any other bodies.

The Government's solution as reflected in the Minister's amendment simply tinkers with the procedure without due regard to the principles of local accountability and management of its affairs. We may ask why the Government want to establish a system which is so oppressive. They have enough powers to deliver a centralised service without recourse to central employment. Perhaps I may spell that out and examine the controls which the Government already have.

The controls available to the Secretary of State include the appointment of chair members of the local probation boards under the Bill before us; default powers under the Probation Service Act 1993; and the removal of board and activation of a management order under this Bill. The latter allows the removal by the Secretary of State of any or all of the members of the board, including the chief officer who will be a member of the board. The Secretary of State has available 100 per cent funding, again under the present Bill; control of the allocation of funding between boards under the Probation Service Act 1993; ring-fenced funding for specific Home Office priorities under probation rules; the control and allocation of capital budgets under the probation rules; and the approval of chief probation officers for selection and appointment by probation committees under the Probation Service Act 1993 and under the probation rules. Your Lordships can see that the Secretary of State already has wide powers. Why does he need any more powers?

Let us look at the accountability of boards through the Secretary of State for expenditure and service delivery. The list includes annual audit by the Audit Commission; inspection by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Probation; national standards; annual reports—

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. He appears to be making a Second Reading speech on Commons amendments. I believe that the House would prefer him to make a speech about the amendments in front of us.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, what I am saying directly relates to the powers of the Home Secretary so what I am saying is necessary. The noble Lord might like to refer to my speech in Hansard. I shall continue with it. The list includes an annual report and regular returns of specified statistics. That information is available to the Home Secretary. A number of possible alternatives could be put in place regarding chief probation officers.

I accept that a good start has already been made by the Home Office in relation to the assessment of candidates for chief officer posts. With the exception of the inevitable teething troubles, the new assessment centre process looks promising and rigorous. Not only will it provide a pool of candidates assessed as suitable but it will also identify training and development needs for those who do not pass first time. Again, we welcome that. Candidates will be approved for particular posts or a range of posts. Those powers are already available to the Home Secretary.

The process is, in effect, a licence to practice as a chief officer in the Probation Service. That is good enough. If that licence is available, employment by the local probation board should pose no problem whatever. Arrangements could be made for the secondment of chief officers. Least satisfactory but worth considering is the appointment of a chief officer to a local probation board by the Secretary of State. That is possible, so why do we need a centralised appointments service?

I am well aware of the disputes which are pending on the basis of the selection procedures adopted. The Minister's formula means that the buck stops with the Secretary of State. What a sorry state of affairs if in future the Home Secretary has to appear in industrial tribunal on employment disputes with chief probation officers.

Let me spell out two other concerns. The obsession with central control creates a system which will be seen as oppressive and remote. The only element in the criminal justice system which offers some support to those appearing in court is the Probation Service. The criminal justice process is valid as long as we all have a stake in it and we share its ownership. If that is lacking the system will lose its credibility. There is also the frightening thought that some Home Secretaries could use the system for political expediency from which we are immune at present. I trust that the Minister will think again.

4.30 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the Minister who both defended the position of the Government today and kindly wrote to us in the period between the Bill leaving this House and returning to it has totally missed the fundamental point made by all noble Lords in previous debates. Although this is a narrow technical and legal issue it is a matter of extreme significance. One is considering here the ownership, culpability, responsibility and accountability of the chief officer to the service of which he is head. Who is to be the employer, not when things go right but when they go wrong?

At the outset, I must pose some very important questions. Are these bodies corporate bodies? What operational autonomy will be enjoyed by the chief officers as they execute their responsibilities? Under the terms of the Bill is the chief officer a public office holder or civil servant? It is no secret that as to those questions the Home Office is in great disarray. It is essential that we receive unequivocal answers to those questions today.

The chief officers of the probation service will be absolutely dismayed by what the Minister's said today about their performance. We are all aware of inconsistencies. Both the present and previous governments have gone a long way to try to improve consistency across the board. The previous government introduced What Works policies. Those policies have been continued by this Government and much progress has been made. However, the Home Secretary approves the appointment of every single chief probation officer. It is not good enough that the Minister should stand at the Dispatch Box today and denigrate the performance of chief officers of probation when he is at least partly culpable in that he approved their appointment in the first place.

The noble Lord said that there were only two strands to the argument: first, that local was best. Local is best because that is where the service is delivered. If it is not effective at local level it is not effective at all. The second strand relates to management. Linear management is absolutely crucial. I note that when speaking to these amendments in another place the Home Secretary likened the service to a company in private business. The analogy in private business is for W H Smith to have its head person appointed by Waterstones. Further, W H Smith is one single national company. That is not a good analogy at all. The noble Lord has been at pains to tell us that the boards are corporate bodies. We know that those boards are not NDPBs, but we should like to know their precise status.

Just as there were a number of questions left unanswered on the issue of bail hostels, a number of matters remain unresolved in this context. The Minister said that through its chairmen the service itself would be involved in the appointment of chief officers. I would have hoped that that would happen without the need to place it on the face of the Bill. It is important that the service has such a role. Therefore, although I welcome that concession it is not one that displaces much that has been said about the amendments.

I do not repeat the enormous number of powers that the Home Secretary has at the moment and will have under the Bill which give him 99.9 per cent control of the service. With almost complete control, one wonders just how personally culpable the Home Secretary will he if something goes wrong. One wonders just how culpable will be the Home Secretary, who wants to be the ultimate line manager in the technical and legal sense, if he merely comes to the Dispatch Box to announce that the chief officer of Whatshire has done something wrong.

The document emanating from the Home Office makes it explicit that in the event of a conflict between the chief officer and the chairman of the board the employees of the board shall follow the instructions of the chief officer. But the chief officer may be at odds because he follows the instructions of the Home Secretary. Some learned minds believe that that will create problems which may need to be settled in court in the likely event of a conflict. Is that really what the Government want? The proposed legal structure gives the probation staff two masters, with the obvious additional complexity that the chief officer is a member of the board. The chief officer is also a direct Home Office agent. It is legitimate to ask whether that arrangement is coherent in employment and public law as both frameworks are relevant.

Tensions are inherent in the architecture of the service and can be expressed in employment law before employment tribunals, particularly in cases of actual and constructive dismissal or judicial review of the acts or decisions of employers. There may be disagreements between boards and chief officers about the distribution of resources and consequent priorities. For example, the chief officer may wish to make enforcement the chief priority, whereas the board, with a clear duty to the local community, may opt to prioritise spending on crime and disorder matters.

The model set out in the Bill does not have the ability to resolve potential problems where the chief officer belongs to the board but reports elsewhere. At present, conflicts will normally be resolved by a decision of the committee. The dynamic created by the proposal is highly problematic. For example, there could be structures to resolve disputes but the Government do not appear to believe that they are necessary. The links between the Minister, chairman, board, chief officer and staff are complex but remain unresolved in this Bill. There could be policy and operational distinctions, such as occur with Next Step agencies. Occasionally, when a problem presents itself resort has been had to such a distinction to decide who should have done what.

Home Office documents refer to resolutions of conflict between the chief officer and the board. They suggest that the incidence of conflict may be too rare to worry about it. Importantly, employment law suggests that what matters is the pathology rather than the healthy state of an organisation. One cannot assume that there is no need to worry about conflict: that is just what one must worry about. We are all aware that goodwill can make most things work where the organisation is in a healthy state. Serious tension will need to be resolved in a much more formal way.

I should like to record another tension. I refer to judgments about the performance of chief officers which I believe will be a real issue. One would have to be aware of the distinction between a failure in performance and failure to follow a particular political line. The specification of the position of the chief officer in following the wishes and instructions of the local board is vital. Clear and simple management structures are of the highest importance. If there was a linear structure of accountability with boards having clear accountability to the national director and the political centre, chief officers employed by board would be stronger and clearer in their role and it would provide the Minister with a more direct cogent route.

I spoke to officials yesterday on the telephone. The Secretary of State could withdraw his approval of an appointment, which would probably mean dismissal of the individual if the Minister believed that in some way the performance of the chief officer was such that it gave rise to concern. Clearly, before a tribunal he would have to give reasons.

I return to the questions that I posed earlier. What is to be the status of the chief officer? Will he or she be a civil servant or public office holder? What is the status of the board? Is it a corporate body? What degree of operational autonomy is to be enjoyed by a chief officer who serves his local community? The nature of a public office holder implies autonomy as with the charity commissioner and the data protection registrar. But in the probation proposal the status of the public office holder is being compromised by the level of direction. I support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia.

Lord Elton

My Lords, there is a preliminary point that needs to be cleared up. The Motion before the House refers to Amendment No. 39 moved by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, that the House does not insist on its amendment for the reasons that he gave. The Motion to which the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, spoke applies very much later on in the Marshalled List. I believe that it is Amendment No. 121C, if I remember correctly. Therefore, if the House divides at the end of this debate, it will not be on the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, but on the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton.

The noble Lord may wish to take advice or think about that for a moment. I entirely endorse what both the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and my noble friend have said and in the interests of expedition I shall not say it again. The chief probation officer needs to be the servant and colleague of his board and not the servant of the Secretary of State and a colleague of his board.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Elton, wishes me to clarify a procedural issue. I am happy to do that at this stage. My understanding is that any Division as regards the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, will have to wait until we deal with Amendment No. 121. We are now debating Amendment No. 39.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, since the Government are attempting to overturn an amendment which was put forward at the last stage in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and myself, I hope that the House will allow me to make a few points on this important matter. Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, readily accepted, the matter is fundamental to this part of the Bill.

It is not an argument as to whether we have a national service, but about how to make it most effective. It was striking that in the justification put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, in seeking to overturn the amendment that this House passed on the last occasion, the word "consistency" rang like a dirge through his speech. The key word here is "effectiveness". After all, consistency can be second or third rate. We on this side of the House feel very strongly indeed that effectiveness is infinitely more important than consistency, particularly where a lack of it may be a very proper reflection of the different experiences in many parts of the country where different criminal regimes have to be contended with. There may be different social circumstances.

If the Government want to neutralise the local probation boards and diminish them and ensure that no one of real power and consequence wants to serve on them, then they have only to continue treading this path. As my noble friend Lord Dholakia and the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, have said, the powers retained by the Home Secretary under this Bill are total. Here we have the responsibility of the boards without power.

It is a question of the maintenance of experience. As the noble Lord has frankly admitted, there is no precedent for this measure. The characteristics of effectiveness, the morale, drive, pride, commitment and energy so desperately needed in the local boards if they are to do a good job—and how much we hope they do—are simply not consistent with the balance of powers constructed by Schedule 1 to the Bill and in particular if the chief officer is appointed or imposed by the Home Secretary of the day.

Perhaps I may add to the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. If this were a company the Home Secretary's position would be that of a shadow director. If it were a trust, the Home Secretary's position would be that of a de facto trustee. There is no question about that. That alone should give pause in consideration of the arrangements being put forward.

It is not unfair to suggest that perhaps the most unsatisfactory aspect of the 18 years of Conservative rule, as I hear it from their lips, is the way in which they chipped away at local powers and centralised. I thought that this Government understood the dangers of the tendency which every government suffer to centralise power in the wholly fallacious belief that if it is in Whitehall it will be better and more sensitively and economically exercised. I do not know of anyone beyond the Government Benches who believes that. If I wanted to score a cheap point—and I shall—one might cite the Dome where many hundreds of millions of pounds have been expended on precisely the principles that the noble Lord has advanced today for his Schedule 1 structure..

Surely, the most important thing here is to have an effective partnership between the Home Secretary and the local boards. It must be a partnership that can work and of broadly equal powers. Here it is a partnership—if one can use that term at all—of subservience on the part of the local boards.

I remind your Lordships that I asked the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, at previous stages of the Bill if he would explain how the matter would develop. Let us suppose that the chief officer of, let us say, the Suffolk probation board travels to London for a meeting with other chief probation officers under the guidance of the national chief probation officer, and he is told about the Government's line to be followed on particular aspects of the delivery of justice in the regions regarding punishment and policy towards the wide discretion which magistrates are given under our complicated criminal law. Let us assume that that line is not liked by the Suffolk chief probation officer. He returns to Suffolk with the order ringing in his ears to deliver that line of policy in the Suffolk probation board.

Let us suppose that at the board meeting where this important matter of policy is discussed the remainder of the board believe as the chief officer does and persuade him that his views are the right ones for Suffolk. They may not be suitable for Newcastle or Liverpool. What is that probation officer to do?

No answer has been forthcoming from the Government Benches. The reason is that there is no answer. The system proposed is of a chief probation officer with the person to whom he is responsible further along the line and who is not present at the board table and not even in Suffolk, but far away in London. In those circumstances unanimity among the members of his board can have no influence on what he can do and does. That is unworkable. If the Government do not know that then they should. That is why we on these Benches are persevering and why we shall not be content with anything short of the minimum requirement that a board must appoint its own chief officer. We must bear in mind and never forget that if he or she does not do well, he or she can be removed by the Home Secretary of the day at the flick of his or her pen. I speak for the Members of this House on these Benches and I know I also speak for the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. The Government's proposal is a serious error and I hope very much that even at this stage they will have the courage to withdraw their amendment.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, strong and powerful views have been expressed on a familiar argument which we have gone around on several occasions. At the outset I said that there was a fundamental disagreement between us. There remains a fundamental disagreement between us on these matters.

The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, thinks that the current system works well. Our view is that the current system, for all its strength—the strength is there in the staff, in the time given freely and honourably by members of local probation committees and in many of the chief officers—is far from perfect. For that reason we have set ourselves on this course of reforms.

I made the point during my opening comments and observations about the disparity in enforcement and the wide variation in the way various orders are acted upon and interpreted; and it has to be remembered that there is considerable variation in the quality and integrity of many of the local programmes.

The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, made much of the other powers which the Secretary of State will have. I do not dispute that those powers are there. They are clearly set out as part of a new national scheme to create a new national service. We do not want to create a service where there is a built-in collision course. We believe it is better to have a system of appointments which will work from the beginning, and let the service get off to a good and sound start.

We have set out in the Bill a system of practical management of services. It is not an argument about constitutional niceties. Much as I respect the noble Lord. Lord Dholakia, for his view, we shall continue to differ. We see the central appointment of the chief probation officer—the chief executive of the locally delivered service—as fundamental to our belief and commitment in our reforms to create and sustain a new national Probation Service.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, asked a number of questions. She started by saying that it was an important technical and legal argument. She asked three questions. First, she asked whether local boards are bodies corporate? The answer is, yes, and the Bill makes that clear. Secondly, she asked whether chief officers are civil servants? The answer to that is, no, they are statutory office holders. Thirdly, she asked whether chief officers are autonomous? They are members of the board in the structure and must act for the board, but subject to the Secretary of State's direction. Certain functions within that can he delegated to them directly by regulation.

We have had a strange debate. It has not borne directly on what we are trying to achieve. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, raised an extraordinary red herring. She sought to compare this issue with the relationship between W H Smith and Waterstones. They are two separate commercial organisations. The situation that we are trying to create is where the Essex Probation Service is part of the same national organisation as the Gloucester Probation Service, rather than having two rival organisations. We are trying to create one organisation nationally. If the amendment is insisted upon by your Lordships' House, it will strike fundamentally at the heart of our powerful reforms.

The question of conflict was part of the argument used against the Government's position. I thought that I had described accurately the line of accountability and the chain of management. There is no doubt that if there is a conflict there will be efforts undertaken to resolve any such conflict locally. But ultimately the chief probation officer is accountable to the Secretary of State through the national director of the Probation Service. Ultimately, if conflicts cannot be resolved through agreement, the Secretary of State will have to issue directions to resolve that conflict. From time to time all organisations have conflicts within them. That is inevitable in any organisation, whether it be national or local. We must have effective lines of management and effective lines of accountability to ensure that those conflicts can at least be handled; rather than what we have in many situations where local boards disagree with their local chief officer, who has a poor relationship with the local board, and there is no one in the current system able and capable to seek a resolution to the problems. We seek to put in place something which will address precisely that issue.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I gave the example of a chief probation officer being unhappy about a line of policy agreed in Whitehall, going to his board and finding that his or her board is of the same mind by dint of local circumstances. Does the Minister say that in that case the Home Secretary would issue a direction requiring unanimity of view on that board to be reversed? If that is so, what effect does he think that would have on that board?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for making that important point. There will not be a problem. The chief officer will advise the Secretary of State of the conflict. The Secretary of State will then issue a direction to the whole board, ensuring that the line of accountability is maintained, that the chief officer can act from a position of strength and that the chief officer can act with the full knowledge that he or she is acting in accordance with nationally directed policy. That is what we seek to achieve in this exercise. That makes the position plain and clear.

That brings me to a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. She said that there should be a clear duty to the local community. There will be duties to the local community. But in putting the point in that way the noble Baroness is confusing the nature of a local service. It is not like a local authority where there are clear duties through the locally-elected councillors. Probation boards are not of that ilk. They are not that kind of local organisation. With the creation of a new national probation service they will be part of a national service. Their duty to a local community must surely be to ensure that there is effective public protection. That is the primary purpose in this exercise.

I have described a clear, no nonsense, under-standable transparent system of linear accountability to a national organisation. If noble Lords opposite insist on their approach, they will be driving a wedge into the general thrust of the reforms that we propose. I believe that noble Lords fully understand that. The matter has been debated in your Lordships' House. More importantly, it has been determined in another place, not once but twice, and with very clear majorities. Another place is very clear about the Government's policy; and the Government are very clear about their policy objectives. It would be wrong. It would undermine the general direction of our policy towards the creation of a new Probation Service if your Lordships' House were to insist on amendments which were carried on Report. I urge your Lordships' House to think long and hard before disagreeing with the general thrust of the Government's reforms and with another place. That is the Government's position.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may ask him a question. The noble Lord said that the boards will be bodies corporate; that chief officers will be public office holders and that they will not have operational autonomy in the way that a chief police officer has. In the light of those answers and in the light of what I said earlier, a public office holder implies autonomy—for example, the charity commissioner or the data protection registrar. Neither of those public office holders are subject to the direction of any Secretary of State. Therefore, how can these be bodies corporate and public office holders and be different from public office holders and public bodies as we know them?

5 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the short answer is that we have decided how we wish to have the system and line of accountability in creating an entirely different and specific national service. The members will have a degree of autonomy as they will be members of a board. But they will ultimately be subject to the constraints of a national service. The noble Baroness shakes her head, but that is how we see the new service developing. That is exactly what we wish to see develop. The noble Baroness clearly takes a different view. I am very surprised by the view that she takes, because when she was a Minister and held responsibilities not completely dissimilar to the ones that I hold, on a number of occasions she expressed frustration at the way in which the Probation Service was developing.

We believe that the reforms are very important. The amendment would strike not just at the heart of what we are trying to achieve but at the certainty we need to achieve that objective.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, it is not me who has a different view and has changed my mind; it is the Minister. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, he said that in the event of any tension the Home Secretary would override not just the chief officer but the whole board. Yet he has just said in answer to my question that the chief officer would have autonomy. He cannot have both.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I made it clear that there is a degree of autonomy. But I made an important point to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, when describing the relationship that ultimately would have to pertain and ultimately would have to reside; a situation where, yes, when push comes to shove, the Secretary of State will be able to issue directions to the local board.

Lord Warner

My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, perhaps I may help him to clarify the position for the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. If we go along the route that she suggests, national standards might not be enforced in particular parts of the country and local boards might choose to ignore a national direction on the national standards regarding, for example, breaches of orders made by the courts.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, that is precisely the point. We are seeking for those very reasons to create a national service. We do not want widespread regional variations. We want national consistency with national standards. Noble Lords opposite are seeking to undermine that important principle.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, there is confusion here. Does the noble Lord agree that under the Bill the Secretary of State will have power to get rid of the board if it does not follow a direction from the national service? The answer is "yes".

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am sure that the answer is yes, but that is not the point. The chief officer has day-to-day organisational responsibility for that part of the Probation Service. The chief officer is in an important position of responsibility in managing the day-to-day affairs of the local probation service.

Lord Carter

My Lords, we may have reached the point where it would be helpful if I gave the House some procedural advice. I am not entering into the debate on the merits of the various amendments. The only way in which the House can have a vote, which is what I think it wants to do, is to vote on Amendment No. 121C. No Motions have been tabled to any of the other amendments before the House. There is always confusion over Commons amendments. There is only one way in which the House can have a vote—I see that the noble Lord, Lord Elton, is nodding. Notice has been given by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, to insist on Amendment No. 121. The House can do that by voting for Amendment No. 121C, although I hope that the majority of the House will vote against it. No notice has been given of opposition to Amendment No. 39. Therefore, the decision on Amendment No. 39 is not procedurally binding on Amendment No. 121. Therefore, the only amendment on which there can be a vote is Amendment No. 121C.

On Question, Motion agreed to.