Reid Unveils Probation Reforms

{mosimage} Six local probation areas have been placed in “special measures” because they have been the worst performing in England and Wales, John Reid announced yesterday.

The six – London, Hertfordshire, Norfolk, Thames Valley, Gloucestershire and Cambridgeshire – were put into “capability reviews” because they were rated very poorly in the national performance tables for the supervision of offenders.

The disclosure comes as the home secretary announced he wanted to see voluntary organisations and the private sector given the chance to bid for £250m of probation service work each year – nearly a third of the total – from April 2008.

Mr Reid confirmed during a speech inside Wormwood Scrubs prison, west London, that he will introduce legislation shortly to make it compulsory for local probation services to put the work out to contract.

As the home secretary launched an inquiry into BBC Panorama disclosures that criminals at two bail hostels were not being properly monitored after their release from prison, he launched a scathing attack on standards in the probation service.

He said the performance of the probation service was “poor or mediocre” in too many areas. More than 60% of adults released from prison offend again despite the government spending £800m a year on the probation service.

“There is only so much that internal reform of the probation service can achieve,” he said, making clear that he wants to see some routine and administrative work such as checking on curfew conditions or running random drug tests done by others. This would leave tasks involving higher skills, such as putting together a package of surveillance and treatment for a serious offender coming out of prison, to the trained probation officer.

“There is no need for all of these jobs to be done by the same agency. Just as the policing team has been expanded over the years to enable uniformed officers to concentrate on what they do best, we need to match appropriate skills to appropriate tasks to free up professional probation officers to focus on the most serious criminals in the community.”

Mr Reid said the probation service – which celebrates its centenary next year – has its historic roots in the 19th century Church of England temperance movement and it was time to “bring the voluntary sector back to centre stage” as an “equally professional partner” in supervising offenders.

At present the voluntary sector provides less than 2-3% of probation services in monetary terms. The home secretary wants that to double this year to 5%, and double again next year, so 10% of budgets are contracted out. The legislation will require local probation services to increase that to more than 30% from April 2008.

Trade unions reacted strongly, with the Napo, the probation union, insisting the service was performing better than ever and had exceeded many of its 30 targets. The Liberal Democrats warned Mr Reid not to rely on the private sector as a panacea for dealing with dangerous individuals.

Voluntary organisations, including Crime Concern and the Rainer Foundation, welcomed the speech and insisted they could make a greater contribution to cutting crime. “The voluntary sector has very specific skills, particularly around community support that can help to give an ex-offender options in life other than crime,” said Graham Beech of Crime Concern.