"Significant risks" to privatising probation services, warns committee

THE break-neck privatisation of probation services – to start next week – has “significant risks”, an investigation by MPs warns today (Tuesday, May 20).

Key questions remain unanswered about the overhaul that will hand private firms responsibility for monitoring violent criminals, their report finds.

Next week, the 35 publicly-run probation trusts in Durham Tees Valley, York and North Yorkshire, Northumbria and elsewhere will be wound up.

They will be replaced by 21 ‘community rehabilitation companies’ (CRCs), ahead of full-scale privatisation at the end of the year.

But today’s report, by the powerful Commons public accounts committee (PAC), warns that:

* The shake-up “has not been fully piloted” – despite being put back by two months, from the start of April.

* Ministers have not explained how the new system will cope with a 22 per cent leap in the number of offenders, when supervision is extended to short-stay prisoners.

* No detailed “contingency plans” have been set out - if a private firm fails, or withdraws from a contract.

* The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has an “extremely poor record of contracting out” – after a scandal involving electronic tagging contracts.

Margaret Hodge, the PAC’s Labour chairwoman, said: “The Ministry of Justice’s reforms to the probation service carry significant risks.

“The scale, complexity and pace of the changes are very challenging and the MoJ’s extremely poor track record of contracting out gives rise to particular concern.”

The Government insists the privatisation will cut reoffending, having accused the probation trusts of failing to prevent enough prisoners returning to a life of crime.

A MoJ spokesman said, earlier this year: “Almost half those released from prison have returned to crime within 12 months. The public deserves better.”

Under the plans, only the 31,000 highest-risk offenders will be monitored by a publicly-run probation service, at a national level.

The rest will be supervised by private firms on a payment-by-results basis, including more than 16,000 violent criminals in the North-East and North Yorkshire.

Those offenders have committed crimes including domestic violence, burglary, robbery, violence against the person and sexual offences, it was revealed.

Critics have also pointed out that the Durham Tees Valley and Northumbria trusts are rated “excellent” – while the rest were judged “good”.

But, yesterday, a MoJ spokesman said many staff were already working for CJCs, which had been running in parallel with probation trusts since last month.

He said: “There will be no big bang on June 1. Staff are already working in new teams and it will be the end of the year before new contracts area awarded.”

Staff have been promised there will be no compulsory redundancies until the system beds down – but that guarantee expires early next year.

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