HL Deb 18 March 2004 vol 659 cc333-6

11.27 a.m.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have to appoint 10 regional offender managers as recommended by the Carter review.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, the Government have accepted the recommendations of the Carter report, Reducing Crime—Changing Lives, published in January 2004, and we intend to appoint 10 regional offender managers. The timing and process for these appointments has not yet been finalised.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. I welcome the £900 million investment in the Prison Service this year and the 4,300 extra probation officers, which seems to reflect the sharper focus now being put on rehabilitation work during and after prison to try better to reduce reoffending. Can the Minister confirm that the regional offender managers will need to build strong links with local sentencers, and opinion formers such as councillors, faith groups, and business and voluntary organisations, to win better understanding of the effectiveness of community sentences in appropriate circumstances?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his welcome, and I confirm what he said in relation to the importance of building links with all of those who will be responsible for participating in sentencing and developing and delivering these projects. It will be essential for all to work together to produce a better outcome.

Baroness Stern

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the life of a probation officer in the past three years has been volatile? There was a complete reorganisation of the service in 2001, meaning a complete change in their way of working, with fines levied on the service if centrally defined targets are not met, and a large number of vacancies, so that many of them are covering for other officers as well. Then they were told on 6 January that their service would cease to exist in June, and that its work would be subject to contestability, which I understand is another word for privatisation. In these circumstances, does the Minister expect the probation officers to work as hard as they can to keep low-level offenders out of prison and to stave off the prison population crisis?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I hear what the noble Baroness says about the lives of officers in the probation service, but I do not share her gloomy description. Contestability is not the same as privatisation. We will very much depend on the expertise, ability and wisdom of our probation service and its officers. The National Offender Management Service will rely equally responsibly on those services and we do not believe that they will in any way be undermined.

Lord Laming

My Lords, could an officer of the probation service become a regional offender manager?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, regional managers will be appointed on the basis of skill and understanding. Many probation officers are extremely skilled and have excellent understanding. It is not for me from this Dispatch Box to say who will or will not get those jobs.

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow

My Lords, does the Minister agree that a well motivated and properly organised staff running a properly funded system of community sentences available to the courts is far more likely to reduce the level of reoffending among young offenders than short terms of imprisonment? If she agrees, is that a message that she would care to pass on to the Home Secretary and make it clear that the Government should speak clearly on this matter?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, it is a message, if I may respectively say so, that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary does not need to hear. Your Lordships will know that in the different sentencing opportunities that we created in 2003 we have done just that. We have said very clearly that prison is appropriate for those who commit serious, heinous offences. However, there should be a broad spectrum of sentencing powers for those who do not need to be in prison but can properly, safely and appropriately be dealt with by other means.

Lord Acton

My Lords, in the Carter report, the section dealing with the regional offender managers states: The inspection regime would need to be aligned to this new structure". What are the implications of those words for prison and probation inspectors?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, all those currently employed in the prison and the probation service will remain employed in the same way. Your Lordships will know that the new service does not come into being until June. If there are to be any changes in the employment structure they will be subject to the usual negotiations and consultations.

Lord McNally

My Lords, the Minister showed a degree of complacency in response to the warnings of the noble Baroness, Lady Stern. Does the Minister not fear that while this metamorphosis of the services goes on there will be a real problem about delivery? Is there not already considerable confusion about how regional managers will link into structures that are not regional? We do not have the regional structures—in the police, education or anywhere else—for them to link into. Perhaps we should look a lot more carefully at the impact at the sharp end of the dramatic changes that are in train.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I am by no means complacent about the pressures that have been put on our probation service in the recent past. The probation service has really risen to that challenge and needs to be commended and congratulated on the strenuous efforts it has made to maintain a very high quality service. The noble Lord will know that the problems in relation to delivery are very much understood by the Government. That is why we have created not just NOMS, which is the joining up of the prison and probation service, but also the National Criminal Justice Board and the local criminal justice boards, where we will be able to assess and meet local need by providing a joined-up service throughout the whole of the criminal justice system. Probation and prison are very much at the heart of what we are trying to do. We need them to join with us in that endeavour; the great joy is that they are doing so.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, has the Minister seen the notice of a forthcoming BBC programme, whereby individual business leaders mentor young offenders leaving prison? Whether or not she has, will she please do as much as she can to encourage that approach?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I have not had the benefit of seeing the BBC programme, but we very much welcome the work with business to try and train prisoners so that they have a proper job to go to when they leave prison. The Reading experiment that many noble Lords may know, of training welders to fill skills gaps, is very successful. If there are any businesses listening to this debate or reading it in Hansard we would very much encourage them to get involved.