Mark Leftly: What crisis? Ploughing on with probation service reform


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The Independent Online

Westminster Outlook If you thought that teachers hated their erstwhile Education Secretary, you should talk to probation officers. Their anger at the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, makes even the most left-wing teachers look like apologists for Michael Gove.

Probation has been in chaos since the start of June, when the service was split ahead of 70 per cent of it being handed to private sector managers later this year.

Bidders for what are called Community Rehabilitation Companies include France’s Sodexo and the FTSE 250 group Interserve.

Napo, the probation union, has sent a bulletin to MPs with examples of how the changes to the service’s structure have left it at “crisis point”. These include a temporary officer leaving due to the working conditions, meaning that 21 people at high risk of harm, including sex offenders, are currently unallocated.

Michael Spurr, chief executive of the National Offender Management Service at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), said it was “inaccurate to paint a picture of ‘upheaval’” and “inaccurate to suggest that the transition has resulted in excessive workloads”.

“Inaccurate” is the MoJ’s buzzword for this issue. It was the reply I received from the press office when I asked for comment on the Napo parliamentary bulletins.

The ministry’s position is, then, that probation officers have simply got it wrong when they say case files have been lost, offenders not met, and that the stress of the changes has been unbearable.

An MoJ source told me this week that when Mr Grayling is “cornered, he comes back fighting” – only the language was a little more earthy. As a result, deny, deny, deny has become the mantra.

It reminds me of the 1984 Christmas special of Yes Minister, when wannabe PM Jim Hacker echoed Otto von Bismarck: “First rule of politics: never believe anything until it’s been officially denied.”