Wilful arrogance

JeremyBeecham.jpgJeremy Beecham on the Coalition’s attempts to evade parliamentary scrutiny over probation reform

“The Government claim that the aim of the Bill is to reduce re-offending. [...] Its real objective is to secure more centralised control over the commissioning of offender management services. It centralises everything in the Home Office, and removes responsibility from local people who govern the probation service.”

These very words were uttered from the Opposition Front Bench – back in 2006 – by no less a person than Baroness Anelay, in a previous incarnation, when the House was debating the last Labour government’s Offender Management Bill. Nor was she the only Opposition spokesman to criticise that measure on similar grounds. The then (Conservative) Shadow Home Secretary, David Davies said the Bill was “about more centralised Government control over offender management, a recipe for disaster” and “forces yet another organisational restructuring”.

These are interesting observations, because in a characteristically cavalier and disingenuous way Coalition Justice Ministers are today seeking to rely on provisions that they once opposed and now deliberately misrepresent. 

If it had not been for Crossbencher Lord Ramsbotham and many on our Labour benches, there would have been no debate about the issue. The government has repeatedly sought to claim the 2007 Act, which the 2006 Bill became, allows it to act without parliamentary approval, and purport to cite former Labour ministers in support. 

Yet the Home Secretary at the time, John Reid (now, of course, Lord Reid) said explicitly: “if at some future point any government were to decide that the time was right to open up that area of work (ie offender management) they would have to make the case to Parliament as Parliament would have the final say.” He then went on to describe “a double lock meaning that any movement would require a vote of both Houses.”

In addition to this critical procedural issue, John was also clear about the policy. It was “about supplementing the public sector”, that “the public sector has, and will continue to have, a key role in the management and rehabilitation of offenders”. And he pledged that the then government would maintain a “sustained commitment to our probation service”; and enable “specialist providers in the voluntary charitable and private sectors to supplement, not replace. The public sector where appropriate, and increase, not reduce local accountability.”

By no stretch of even the most vivid ministerial imagination could John Reid’s words, or the legislation which they describe, justify the interpretation which has been misleadingly applied to them. 

Perhaps we should not be surprised. The current Lord Chancellor is like his predecessor – never knowing understated. But Chris Grayling lacks Ken Clarke’s knowledge, understanding or respect for the legal system and questions of justice, and frequently criticises the probation service for high rates of re-offending. In the current Bill’s Second Reading debate in the Commons, Mr Grayling acknowledged that “the probation trusts are currently hitting many targets, but there is one simple reality at the heart of all this; reoffending is currently increasing”.  Yet he chooses to ignore the fact that this is true of offenders who are not supervised by the probation service, notably those serving short sentences. 

Labour applauds any determination to extend supervision to such offenders, but we are deeply concerned at how the Coalition proposes to tackle the problem – something made the more profound by the procedure it is adopting.

Ministers have repeatedly refused to disclose the risk register relating to the Bill, while not denying a leak that asserted there was an 80% risk of an unacceptable drop in operational performance, or contradicting the Chief Inspector of Probation’s warning of “an increased risk to the public”. That is no way to treat a matter of high political salience and public concern, or a professional and dedicated workforce. Or indeed, Parliament itself.

Lord Jeremy Beecham is Shadow Justice Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @JeremyBeecham

Published 11th March 2014

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