Supervision of child offenders to be privatised

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

Supervision of some of the country's most damaged and disturbed child offenders is likely to be entrusted to the private sector under controversial government proposals.

Draft plans governing the running of the new private sector child jails for persistent young offenders say ministers want both pre- and post-release supervision "opened up to make use of expertise which exists outside probation and social services" - even when the individual is already in council care.

With many of the children likely to come from a background of local authority care, they would then have both a social worker and the proposed "supervising officer" appointed by the Home Secretary, with potential for conflict. The draft standard proposals for supervision, seen by the Independent, will inevitably set the Government once again on a collision course with both the social work and probation professions and child welfare groups. Probation officers already claim the proposals are so unrealistically rigorous that every one of the offenders will fail to meet them and the system will flounder.

Under the secure training orders, half of the sentence of up to two years would be served in the new units and half under the care of the supervising officers in the community. The draft standards are tougher than other supervision orders to reflect the wishes of ministers that they should be "vigorous and closely supervised", providing for a minimum of three meetings a week in the first month of freedom, involving parents at all levels and arranging purposeful physical activities.

With the Government set on removing the university-based training of probation officers, there are concerns about what skills the new supervising officers will be required to have, given the sensitive nature of the work with disturbed and difficult children and their families.

However, Home Office plans for the five jails - to hold a total of about 200 girls and boys - are already in difficulties, with three involved in planning problems and only two likely to be up and running before a general election. Sources suggest that ministers have yet to decide whether to go ahead with only two, which would mean holding children hundreds of miles from home - making both family contact and the tasks of the new supervising officers very difficult.

News of the problems with the jails coming only two weeks after tagging trials have run into difficulties will add to the embarrassment of Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, over his law-and-order initiatives.

Yesterday Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "As long as he makes policy based on political expediency rather than sound analysis, research or an understanding of criminal behaviour, these populist ideas like boot camps, tagging and child jails, are doomed to failure."