Labour forces vote on privatisation of probation

Labour is seeking to inflict a significant Commons defeat on the Conservatives today with a vote on plans to privatise the probation service.

Amid a growing clamour of concern about the plans, Labour will argue that Chris Grayling's scheme will fragment the service and put the public at risk.

"Experts, probation staff and management and MPs from all side have warned the abolition of the probation service and handing over serious and violent criminals to the likes of G4S and Serco will put the safety of communities up and down the country at risk," Labour shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said.

"The government needs to think again before it's too late."

Under government plans, probation services will lose control of all but 30,000 of the most high risk cases, with the other 220,000 low-to-medium-risk offenders being farmed out to private firms.

Critics are particularly outraged at the speed with which the proposals are being implemented.

A programme run by Sodexo Justice Services, a private contractor, in HMP Peterborough will not report back until 2015/16 and has been criticised for using self-selecting participants by making it a voluntary offenders.

Voluntary participants are presumed to be those offenders who are most likely to want to turn over a new leaf, meaning the results of the scheme are likely to be more positive than if it was used on all offenders.

"I am afraid it is obvious that, because they are understandably in a hurry, the preparations that the government have made for the introduction of this scale of change are very modest indeed," former Lord Chief Justice Lord Woolf said.

There are also concerns that the split between medium-and-high-risk offending will prove practically impossible at a day-to-day level.

Ex-offenders can slip between risk categories quite easily – for instance by starting to drink more heavily – and it is unclear how these cases will be transferred between private contractors and the probation service.

"We're very concerned about separating offenders out between low and high risk. Things don't work like that," Tessa Webb, chief executive of Hertfordshire Probation Trust, said.

"We think there should be a coherent, single organisation."

Labour will introduce a reasoned amendment to the offender management bill, which has its second reading in the Commons today.

The bill does not specifically include provisions to privatise probation but Labour says the policies it covers will be delivered by the 'probation landscape' the government intends to create.

The amendment reads:

That this House declines to give a second reading to the offender rehabilitation bill [Lords] because the implementation of the proposals in the Bill depends on the government's proposed restructuring of the probation service; believes that this proposed restructuring will see the abolition of local probation trusts, the fragmentation of supervision of offenders on the basis of their risk level and the commissioning of services direct from Whitehall; further believes that the government has failed to provide any costings for their proposals; notes reports that suggest the Ministry of Justice's own internal risk register warns that the government's proposals could result in a high risk of an unacceptable drop in operational performance; and further declines to give a second reading to the bill on the grounds that none of the government's proposals has been piloted nor independently evaluated, potentially resulting in an unnecessary risk to the public's safety.

The Liberal Democrats are expected to support the COnservatives on the proposals, meaning any Labour vote is unlikely to succeed.

Welsh national paty Plaid Cymru will support the opposition, however.

"It is not right for us to allow the government to undermine the integrity of the probation service, and to put profits ahead of public safety," Plaid Westminster leader Elfyn Llwyd said.

"The government must listen to sense and rethink these disastrous plans."

Justice minister Jeremy Wright said: "Each year around 600,000 crimes are committed by those who have already broken the law – this is unacceptable and must change. Our new approach will see the best of the public, private and voluntary sector working together to break the depressing cycle of crime too many are caught up in.

"Organisations will only be paid in full if they are successful at driving down re-offending, making hardworking taxpayers’ money go further. Everyone leaving prison will be supervised for at least 12 months and we will also establish a new National Probation Service tasked specifically with protecting the public from the most high risk offenders."

Last week saw thousands of probation staff take part in a strike over the plans.