THOUSANDS of North-East prison officers are to be balloted on controversial Government reforms which could see some juvenile detention centres run by private operators.

The National Offender Management Service (NOMS) plan to introduce market testing is being opposed by the Prison Officers' Union.

It fears staff affected will see their terms and conditions undermined with the union no longer able to collectively represent them.

Up to 2,500 members of the union in the North-East are being asked to vote from Monday against taking part in the market testing process, with the result of the ballot expected in the next few weeks.

Joe Simpson, chairman of the union's branch at Holme House Prison, near Stockton, said the decision was the most important the union had faced in 17 years.

He said it had been prevented by management from holding meetings during working hours to discuss the ballot.

NOMS chief executive Martin Narey said market testing, which is likely to lead to some functions being outsourced to private companies, will bring significant improvements to establishments affected.

But the union claims that it will eventually lead to up to 50 per cent of prisons being run by the private sector and that the forthcoming bidding process is weighed against the public sector prison service.

A spokesman said: "The Labour Government promis-ed, when in opposition, that private prisons would be returned to the public sector at the first opportunity.

"The Prison Officers' Association's position which we have maintained for many years is that to profit from people's incarceration is unacceptable and an abuse of public money."

Ten prisons across the UK are already privately managed by firms such as Group 4 and Securicor, although none are in the North-East.