Straw plans to privatise probation

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The Independent Online
JACK STRAW, the Home Secretary, is drawing up plans to privatise the Probation Sservice if standards of supervising offenders are not improved, insiders have warned.

Senior Probation Service staff believe that the "very existence" of the service is threatened, with Mr Straw ready to contract out its work to private security companies such as Group 4, and to professionals such as psychologists, teachers and healthcare workers.

The alarm was sounded by probation chiefs in Avon, after "grave" warnings from Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Probation that the service there was badly underperforming.

In a letter to staff, the Avon probation chiefs said: "We should be in no doubt that time is running out for the service nationally and if we fail to deliver the Government's agenda then it is clear that the Home Secretary will find alternative means of addressing his crime reduction policy."

The letter, signed by Roger Poynton, the acting Chief Probation Officer, Jean Findlay, the chairwoman of the Avon Probation Committee, and her two vice-chairman, states that Mr Straw may turn to private contractors rather than the modest changes to the service previously discussed. It states: "We ... would predict that his legislation will be of far greater significance, not tinkering with amalgamations, 100 per cent funding and civil servant CPOs [Chief Probation Officers], but more radically creating alternative means of supervising offenders in the community."

The Probation Service is working with the Home Office to become a nationally run service, funded entirely from central government, with chief officers employed as civil servants. But the Avon letter said: "The Home Secretary is already on record regarding his view that a range of alternative professionals (psychologists, teachers, health-care workers) should be involved with offenders and the prospect of contracting-out major sectors of work under the Government's Best Value initiative is a very real possibility."

The warning follows a visit to Avon by inspectors who "castigated" the service for its "appalling record on service delivery". The probation chiefs admitted that "vast sectors of our work are significantly below standard and to an extent that threatens our very existence".

Last night the Home Office said "nothing is ruled in or out" regarding the options for modernising the service.

Harry Fletcher, a spokesman for the National Association of Probation Officers, said the service was an easy target for politicians wanting to be seen to be hard on crime. He described the leaked letter as "an extraordinary attack on the integrity of staff".