Plan for ex-army probation officers

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The Independent Online
A CONFIDENTIAL civil service report has paved the way for Michael Howard, the beleaguered Home Secretary, to implement his plans to fill the probation service with ex-army and police officers, writes Nick Cohen.

After a series of attacks from ministers on the "liberal" service since Christmas, Mr Howard is ready to undermine the probation officers' traditional role of providing counselling and support for offenders outside jail.

His civil servants' key recommendation is that the statutory requirement that all applicants for the probation service complete a two-year diploma in social work be abandoned. Probation officers learn too much about racial discrimination, the Home Officeteam say, and the present recruitment system is leading to too many young women being hired.

The report recommends measures which will transform the culture of probation work, even though everyone the authors talked to, from magistrates to private sector consultants, thought the present training system was more or less satisfactory.

Probation officers' leaders claim the review shows how the civil service is now willing to come up with the conclusions ministers want to hear.

"Nearly all the evidence pointed to keeping the current arrangement with some adjustments," said Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the probation officers' union, Napo. "It is an extraordinary jump of logic for the civil servants to hear thisand then recommend wholesale change."

The Home Office said that the report was with ministers and it could not comment. But Mr Howard has made it clear that he has Britain's 8,000 probation workers in his sights. Last week he said he was unhappy with the training system and wanted to encourage people leaving the armed forces and police to join.

No final decision has been made, but the social work diploma will almost certainly be replaced by "on the job" training.