I spent a few hours this morning on the picket line in Stockton with striking Probation Officers and their administrative support team.
Why are they on strike? They are worried about their jobs of course, but more importantly they are worried about public safety. Probation Officers are highly qualified professionals, many with decades of experience managing offenders. They are the front-line, developing working relationships with their clients hoping to ensure that the chances of them reoffending are minimised; supervising and managing, rehabilitating and guiding. They do excellent work and are an award-winning service.
The Tory Liberal Democrat Coalition Government has decided to outsource 70% of the probation service's workload to the private sector and G4S and Serco are in the running to bid for the contracts.
You will remember G4S, or Group 4 Security as they were known; The history of their failings goes back at least 20 years. More recently they were unable to provide a comprehensive stewarding operation for the Olympics and the army had to step in. They were under fire last week after it emerged that a South African prison they run has been under investigation for prison abuse. Last week there was rioting at the prison they run at Maidstone and their prison at Oakwood has experienced a catalogue of serious issues. And they are under investigation for tagging issues, even after having to sack two officers a few years ago for tagging an artificial leg leaving the offender able to slip their net.
What of Serco, they must be a better bet surely, you ask. Not so that you would notice, to be honest. They took over NHS Pathology Laboratories to disastrous effect. Their management of the out of hours service in Cornwall resulted in chaos and poor support for patients and they are part of the tagging scandal too.
As the Guardian explains today
Under the justice secretary's proposed timetable, probation trusts in England and Wales will be abolished and the supervision of 225,000 low- and medium-risk offenders transferred to "community rehabilitation companies" on a payment-by-results basis by next October. A much smaller national probation service will manage 31,000 high-risk offenders and public protection cases.
Grayling has (...) made clear that G4S and Serco will both be able to bid for the £450m contracts despite the fraud inquiries under way in their current Ministry of Justice contracts. Grayling has asked the Serious Fraud Office to investigate G4S and subjected Serco to a forensic audit after it emerged they had been billing the MoJ for tracking the movements of offenders who had gone abroad, been returned to jail or even died.
The Chief Executives of both companies resigned last week in disgrace.
This should make us all feel very uneasy indeed about the future of this vital service.
NAPO members explained to me today that where they currently have a one-to-one relationship with their clients, this will change with the new arrangements. It is likely that a call centre approach will be taken where offenders will ring in, be asked a series of questions in a tick box exercise and this will count as part of their regular contact unless an answer gives cause for concern.
While I stood with the strikers on the picket line we were joined by a client and a former client who were both there to support their Probation Officers. One took the time to tell me how important it is to him to have half an hour each week with someone who will listen to him properly and help him to steer clear of trouble. Another who has come out of prison and is no longer on licence explained that it was the support of the Probation Service that has seen her reclaim her life and go back to studying and making something of herself. Both were very clear that proposed new arrangements would not have helped them in the same way that the century old service is able to.
I cannot conceive of any good reason to sell of this service, to lose this professionalism and dedication. I can however very easily conceive of some very serious consequences if this disastrous privatisation goes through.
If like me you think the Probation Service should not be sold off then please sign this petition and share it with all your friends and followers on social media.