Probation officers in court threat to Howard

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Probation officers are to take Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, to court over his plans to dismantle their college-based training.

The National Association of Probation Officers is to seek judicial review of the decision, which they say has been taken against a wealth of evidence and advice and puts the public at risk.

Out of 504 individuals and organisations consulted by the Home Office, only 11 were in favour. Over 200 MPs, university vice-chancellors and the Central Probation Council, the national employers' organisation, have reservations about the plans, which they say will leave recruits lacking basic educational skills in areas such as motivation and psychology.

Under the changes, officers will no longer need to gain a university social work diploma in a two-year course before being recruited, and will instead be trained "on the job".

Baroness Blatch, the Home Office minister, said the move is intended to make it easier for older people - including those with military or uniformed backgrounds - to join the service. She denied the changes would leave untrained officers responsible for dangerous criminals. "Mature people with valuable skills and experience accumulated from years in other professions need no longer be barred from employment in the service," she said. "Instead, they will be recruited on the strength of their abilities and then receive rigorous individual training and tough assessment."

The move is seen in the profession as an attempt to shift the service towards a more discipline and punishment base - rather than dealing with offenders' social and psychological problems. It is also suggested ministers want to reverse the trend of more women joining the service. An internal Home Office report described as "startling" the fact 68 per cent of new entrants were female.

The probation officers' association said it would refuse to co-operate and branded the changes "extraordinary". It said that about 10 per cent of probation officers already had a military, police or prison background and 30 per cent of new recruits were over 40.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary, said the decision "flies in the face of all available evidence. We have taken legal advice that the route of judicial review is open to us and we will pursue this with vigour".

A spokesman for the Association of Chief Officers of Probation said: "We see it as a degradation in the standards of our service which will impact on public safety. The bottom line is that poorly trained probation officers won't be able to execute their duties as well as well trained officers and therefore dangerous people won't be contained as effectively."