Tougher image for probation service to get tougher

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The Independent Online
MINISTERS YESTERDAY proposed the biggest shake-up in the 91-year history of the probation service, because it has acquired too much of a "caring" image.

They want probation officers to become civil servants in a new national "Public Protection Service" answerable to the Home Secretary, Jack Straw. Yesterday he published a consultation document which said the public associated probation officers with "a tolerance of crime".

The government wants to alter the way a probation officer's role is described in law. Mr Straw's document said: "Legislation still directs probation officers to `advise, assist and befriend' offenders. This is completely out of line not just with the expectations of the courts but also with the reality of the work which probation staff undertake."

The Home Office proposals to set up a national Next Steps Agency with a chief executive reporting to Mr Straw would mean the service being slimmed to 42 regional units, from the 54 existing probation areas each of which is run by an autonomous probation committee.

The Home Office document said: "The lack of democratic accountability even at local level is a concern."

The consultation paper was launched by the Home Office minister, Lord Williams of Mostyn, who said the government had ruled out a merger of prison and probation services.

But Richard Tilt, director general of the prison service, said the two organisations would be working closer together and he hoped to see a greater exchange of staff between the two disciplines.

Lord Williams said he was aware that some would see the changes in name as a "cosmetic" exercise but it was important to change the public's perception of probation work, and particularly community sentences which were seen as a "soft touch".

Howard Lockwood, chair of the Association of Chief Officers of Probation, said a national agency with direct access to the Home Secretary was likely to give the service greater resources but could result in "top-heavy bureaucracy" and less efficiency.