The government will push ahead with plans to open up the probation service to independent sector competition despite strong opposition from staff and MPs.
The decision, which could lead to some local probation services being scrapped, is due to be officially announced this week, but was revealed at probation union Napo’s annual conference at the weekend.
In a leaked letter to deputy prime minister John Prescott dated 30 September, home secretary Charles Clarke said the proposals would be included in a Management of Offenders Bill to be introduced by early December, dispelling speculation the legislation would be shelved.
Under the proposals, local probation boards would be converted into “smaller, more business-focused bodies”, lose their statutory duty to deliver probation services to the home secretary, and face competition from private and voluntary providers.
Clarke said that some probation boards would be left without contracts as a result of the bidding process and cease to exist.
Judy McKnight, general secretary of Napo, wrote to Clarke requesting assurance that Cabinet Office guidelines stipulating a minimum 12-week period for written consultation would be followed.
But in a reply on Clarke’s behalf on 13 October, home office minister Fiona Mactaggart angered the union by saying it would have a shorter consultation so legislation could be introduced “as soon as possible”.
Around 600 delegates at Napo’s conference unanimously passed an emergency motion to agree industrial action over the proposals if talks with the government failed.
McKnight warned the conference that the proposals could “spell the death knell” for the probation service, and said he doubted they would help in the bid to reduce re-offending.
Delegates also voted to block Martin Narey, the former head of the National Offender Management Service, from addressing the conference because he was “no longer accountable”, and were angry that no minister was able to attend.
This week, John McDonnell, secretary of the parliamentary justice unions group, a coalition of 45 MPs, called the government’s proposals “absolutely disastrous” and pledged a “guerrilla war” with the home secretary.