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Monday, October 17, 2005 

Clarke plans to privatise probation board services.

It almost makes you wonder if they'll eventually run out of things to privatise.

The home secretary, Charles Clarke, is to announce legislation this week to abolish local probation boards so he can take over their statutory powers and put their services supervising 200,000 offenders out to private tender.

The Guardian has learned that the plan could see private companies such as Group 4 managing dangerous offenders and advising the courts on whether to send offenders to prison and when they should be released. The decision to "market-test" probation services is believed to be the first time that an entire group of public sector professionals has been threatened with privatisation.

According to a letter from Mr Clarke to John Prescott leaked to the Guardian, the home secretary spells out that his plan to "market-test" the probation service means that the public probation service "could be left with no contracts and would therefore cease to exist" in some parts of the country.

In the letter dated September 30 2005 Mr Clarke told the deputy prime minister that he wants to "move towards a world where open contracts and tendering for all offender management services, including interventions and custody, are the norm". He says the decision to take over the probation boards' "exclusive duty to deliver probation services" will enable him to "contract directly for both prison and probation services with a range of providers from the private, not-for-profit and public sectors. This represents a radical change for the probation service."

The contracts will specify how the new providers should manage dangerous offenders, plan offenders' sentences, and engage in local partnership activity. They will also specify the level of qualifications and training of staff.

It is believed his plea to Mr Prescott, as chairman of the cabinet's domestic affairs committee, was successful in securing a slot in the parliamentary timetable for his legislation in early December. An announcement is expected to be made this week taking his management of offenders bill off the "reserve list" and getting it on to the statute book by next summer.

The move marks a speeding up of the development of the National Offender Management Service [NOMS], which has had a troubled birth in bringing together the prison and probation services.

Harry Fletcher, of the probation officers' union, Napo, said last night: "This is an extraordinary proposal which will lead to massive resistance and industrial action. If implemented it will mean privatisation of the probation service. We could have the absurd situation of Securicor or Group 4 writing court reports and recommending prison to boost numbers. It could also mean private companies advising the parole board on early release and indeed on sentencing matters."

The services run by the probation boards that would be offered to private correctional companies such as Group 4 GSL and Premier Prisons include:

· advising the courts on the most appropriate sentences for each offender and on parole decisions

· ensuring community punishments, such as community work orders, are carried out and offenders are supervised and rehabilitated

· supervising prisoners released on licence including sex offenders and those convicted of other serious violent crimes.

They also have statutory duties in relation to victims, children, local crime and youth offending teams.

Out of all the ludicrous privitastion fantasies of both Labour and the Tories, this has to rank pretty much right at the top. As Harry Fletcher says, we've already got private companies running both some prisons and delivering suspects and inmates both to court and then to prison, resulting in a few well-publicised cases of criminals both absconding and being released by mistake. This will no doubt intensify as such groups squeeze employees to gain greater profits out of the misery of others. Will such people be interested in rehabilitating those who are back out in society, as probation officials and boards do? Or will they be more interested in seeing them back in the jails that they also run, grabbing more money from the government?

Also worthy of note is that they such firms may well be able to influence the parole board and sentences. Wouldn't such companies like both longer sentences and then longer times on parole, with the offender tagged and under surveillance of the same company? You can almost imagine the likes of such security firms as Group 4 and Securicor smacking their lips in anticipation of such a situation. Private firms are also much more likely to acquiesce to public pressure over sex offenders or tougher sentences. While the government can make unpopular but right decisions and get away with it, private firms that have to engage fully with the public and with their shareholders are at a disadvantage which could lead to an even further clampdown on crime, even though most statistics show levels of burglaries at historic lows.

We cannot let the government continue to get away with privatising everything in sight. While we should never assume that the public sector is better for running everything, it needs to remembered that some government responsibilities need to handled in-house for the good of the country. Probation services and prisons are such departments that need to be in the hands of the public sector. As has often been noted, a country is not judged on how it treats its free, normal and wealthy citizens, but on how minorities, the imprisoned and impoverished are. On this basis, Britain is one country which still has a long way to go.

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