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Probation reform 'train crash poses a risk to public safety'

Chaos means that hundreds of danger assessments are not being carried out on criminal offenders

Hundreds of criminal offenders across the country have not seen a probation officer for weeks, amid warnings from senior politicians that the coalition’s reforms are a “train crash” that pose “a risk to public safety”. The probation service has descended into chaos since it was reorganised at the start of last month in preparation for handing 70 per cent of the service’s management to the private sector, according to Westminster and union sources.

Experts say the crisis has deepened since The Independent on Sunday revealed last month that computer failures have led to thousands of offenders’ case files being lost, frozen or wiped since IT changes were introduced on 2 June. This has resulted in huge backlogs of work and even in offenders being turned away from community service.

Many probation officers are now reporting serious instances of strain or illness caused by overwork, while at the start of last week as many as 500 were estimated to have not received proper pay. More disturbingly, hundreds of examples are emerging of people on probation who have not been assigned an officer, meaning that they are walking free without any assessments on whether they pose an increased risk to the public since sentencing. One source suggested as many as 2,500 offenders could be without a probation officer.

In a briefing to MPs, Napo, the probation officers’ union, said it had found 60 domestic violence cases “left in a cupboard with no offender manager” in the North Yorkshire region. A further 50, with at least one high-risk offender, have not been allocated in the South-west, while 291 cases in the South Yorkshire area have been passed to an officer “in name only”.

Particularly problematic have been moves to divide the service in two, the report claims. High-risk offender files go to the National Probation Service, which will remain in state hands, and the rest go to community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) soon to be run by the private sector.

In the Warwickshire and West Mercia area, the union says there is evidence that high-risk sex-offender cases have been incorrectly sent to the CRCs. IT restrictions introduced last month mean that tutors running sex-offender rehabilitation programmes cannot access individual files when they are with CRCs.

The Napo briefing recommends that MPs on the Justice Select Committee ask the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, how rapidly the issues will be resolved and who is accountable if further serious offences occur in the meantime. It concludes: “Why has this situation been allowed to happen?”

By coincidence, Mr Grayling faces wider questioning about his role, on Wednesday. Elfyn Llwyd, a Plaid Cymru MP and member of the committee, says he plans to raise the probation issues at the hearing. “The most worrying feature of all this is that it was entirely predictable,” said Mr Llwyd. “This is definitely a train crash in the making and is a risk to public safety. In fact, we’re about at that point now – this is a privatisation too far.”

The unions have found around 500 examples of where officers have not been paid properly since the service was divided. Issues include not being paid for unsociable hours, which form a large slice of a probation officer’s salary which can be as low as £22,000, and pension contributions taken even if the officers have opted out of the scheme.

Tania Bassett, a Napo official and former probation officer, said: “Supervision is a critical part of risk management. It enables officers to discuss a person’s circumstances and any changes that might be a risk trigger, such as increased alcohol use.

“Without it, huge amounts of work and information gathering isn’t done and the person is just being left to continue their behaviour. This might mean they could be living with their victim and no one would know, or having contact with children when they pose a risk.”

Mr Grayling believes that transforming 35 probation trusts into 21 CRCs run by the private sector will result in a more efficient and less costly service. Private-sector contractors and mutual companies formed by probation officers will be selected as preferred bidders for the £800m-a-year contracts by the end of 2014.

The shadow Justice Secretary, Sadiq Khan, said: “The chaos caused by the Government’s reckless privatisation of probation is getting worse by the week, and still ministers are in denial about how bad things are getting. David Cameron needs to intervene personally and halt immediately Chris Grayling’s crazy plans before someone gets hurt.”

A MoJ spokesman said: “With any  change of this scale, it is normal to experience some issues, which is why we prepared so extensively for it. The vast majority of staff were paid without issue. We are implementing these reforms in a controlled and measured way. We will not take risks with public safety.”