Privatisation of probation service will ‘put public at risk’

Protests over £800m sell-off that will hand supervision of offenders to private companies

Thousands of probation workers will join nationwide protests today to claim that public safety will be jeopardised by the Government’s plans to transfer the community supervision of most former offenders to private companies.

Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, is to signal his determination to push ahead with the £800m privatisation of the bulk of the National Probation Service, which traces its roots back to 1907. He will publish advertisements today inviting bids to take over around three-quarters of the service’s current workload.

Under the moves, the 35 existing regional probation trusts will be replaced by 21 government companies which will tender out the work of supervising more than 200,000 offenders each year considered to present low or medium risk. Those regarded as high risk will continue to be monitored by a slimmed-down national probation service.

Ministers insist their plans are essential to drive up standards in probation and to reduce reoffending levels. Six out of 10 people who leave prison are reconvicted within two years.

Potential bidders include such firms as G4S and Serco, which are both being investigated over alleged fraud in Ministry of Justice contracts. The sums paid to the successful companies or voluntary-sector organisations will be linked to their success in reducing offending rates.

Probation staff will demonstrate against the moves across England and Wales today in action being jointly organised by the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo), Unison and the GMB. Staff will organise the lunchtime protests outside dozens of probation offices in what is likely to be a precursor to strike action. They claim private firms will put public safety  at risk, and threaten jobs through cost-cutting moves.

Ian Lawrence, the general secretary of Napo, said: “If it’s not bad enough that this government doesn’t care about jobs, professionalism and  people’s livelihoods, not caring about public safety is a downright disgrace and a total failure on their part to fulfil their duty to society.” Mr Lawrence has said industrial action by his union is a “racing certainty”.

Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison, which represents 4,500  probation staff, said: “The Government’s aim is to wash its hands of any responsibility for maintaining a safe and efficient probation service. This is a risk too far and it is clear the Government has not thought through the long-term consequences of these reckless plans.”

Ministers hope the transfer of most of the service will be completed by next autumn.

Labour has also accused Mr Grayling of gambling with public safety by pushing ahead with a “half-baked privatisation”. It claims the minister has tried to prevent MPs from debating his plans by using existing parliamentary legislation to put them into effect.

Sadiq Khan, the shadow Justice Secretary, said: “By avoiding scrutiny Chris Grayling is showing utter contempt of due process and the role of Parliament. It is only right Parliament should scrutinise these proposals, given they have a very real effect on the day-to-day safety of communities.”

Mr Grayling said last night: “We are committed to introducing our important reforms, which were widely consulted on. This includes a new public sector National Probation Service that will supervise our most dangerous offenders. We will continue to support staff and engage with unions as our reforms move forwards.”