A NORTH-EAST MP said last night she is “deeply troubled” after claims emerged that a probation service in the region is in turmoil, just days before it is due to be part-privatised as part of Government reforms.
Jenny Chapman, the shadow prisons minister, said she had received complaints from probation officers throughout the country.
She spoke out after an insider told The Northern Echo that sickness levels among frontline workers at Darlington probation service have increased ahead of the changes, leaving other staff with unmanageable workloads.
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The source claimed that the remaining probation officers are having to rush appointments to ensure all offenders are seen, and have no time to hold in- depth discussions with the criminals they are monitoring.
It is understood that to free up officers' time, workers based at the service's Corporation Road base are now meeting some offenders once a month rather than every week.
The source said: "The bottom line is that offenders are not being supervised - they are just being seen. We are talking about sexual offenders, people convicted of domestic violence and violence against the public.
"What's happening is completely deplorable.”
The work of the Probation Service is due to be part-privatised next month. From June 1, responsibility for the supervision of about 160,000 medium and low risk offenders a year will be passed to 21 privately-run community rehabilitation companies (CRCs).
Responsibility for 31,000 high-risk offenders each year will remain in the public sector with the formation of a new National Probation Service.
Trusts including Durham Tees Valley, which runs the service in Darlington, will be abolished.
Russell Bruce, chief executive of the trust, conceded it was a challenging time, but said that he is confident “the new organisations will continue to deliver high-quality services as we move forward”.
However Jenny Chapman, Darlington MP and Labour's probation spokeswoman, described the insider’s claims as "deeply troubling" and said: "The Government needs to get a grip. This isn't just Darlington - up and down the country we're getting these reports.
"The problems have been predicted from the outset.”
Last week (May 20), the powerful Commons Public Accounts Committee warned that the part-privatisation had “significant risks”.
Key questions remain unanswered about the overhaul, their report found.
Mrs Chapman said: "There were pilots of this program that were cancelled by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling when he first took office and there has been no learning about what can go wrong."
The MP added that the risk status of offenders frequently changed and a criminal deemed a low or medium risk could quickly become high risk, yet still be supervised by a relatively inexperienced probation officer from the voluntary or private sector.
According to figures released by Labour in October, more than 16,000 criminals on probation in the region will be handed over to the private firms.
They are classed as low and medium-risk offenders, despite having being jailed for serious and violent offences.
Mr Bruce said: “Our trust has been one of the highest performing probation areas in the country for several years.
“This is, of course, a challenging time and everyone is working hard to ensure that transition to the new probation structures is implemented as smoothly as possible and I am confident that the new organisations will continue to deliver high-quality services as we move forward.
“Whenever staff shortages are identified we take steps to employ additional staff as required.
“Initially offenders are seen weekly but obviously the timing of longer-term arrangements is dependent on an assessment of the requirements for each case. If offenders to do not comply with the terms of their supervision requirements staff ensure that they are returned to court.”
Ian Lawrence, general secretary of Napo, formerly the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "I believe Chris Grayling is conducting a reckless social experiment which has not been subject to real scrutiny by Parliament or the public.
"I believe the changes being imposed are a real and present danger to community safety."