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THE government is gambling with public safety by privatising night-time probation hostel staff, unions warned today.
Starting last week, private companies Sodexo and OCS are jointly running night-time supervision in probation hostels with the National Probation Service, which previously ran the service alone.
As a result of the privatisation of the service, half the night staff have now been transferred to the two private companies.
Sodexo-run Peterborough women’s prison was criticised earlier this year over safety concerns and the routine strip-searching of prisoners.
OCS, which provides cleaning and catering services as well as security, has previously been criticised for its use of zero-hours contracts.
The privatisation of probation services to “community rehabilitation companies,” which monitor low and medium-risk offenders, has been criticised by both the Inspectorate of Prisons and Inspectorate of Probation, which found the public was being put at risk by poor services.
The probation service runs 88 hostels in England and Wales, providing more than 2,000 residential beds for offenders in the community, housing mainly high-risk residents, most of whom have served prison sentences for violent crimes or sex, gang or terrorism-related offences.
More than one in 10 recalls to prison in 2015-16 were from probation hostel residents, according to recent Inspectorate of Probation figures, which found that 2,962 were sent back to prison for breaching the terms of their licence.
Justice Secretary David Gauke has confirmed that the private companies will be allowed to employ unvetted staff for the first two months of the contract.
Unison national officer for police and justice Ben Priestley said the “dangerous experiment” of privatising night-time supervision meant ministers were “gambling with public safety.”
He said: “Probation hostels are meant to add to public safety, not diminish it. Until now, hostels were staffed by highly skilled and well-trained professionals.
“Allowing employees who are potentially neither trained nor vetted to look after high-risk ex-offenders is placing probation staff, other hostel residents and the communities in which the hostels are located at risk.”
Probation officers’ union Napo general secretary Ian Lawrence said it was “absolutely disgraceful” that the Ministry of Justice had gone ahead with the change despite safety issues being identified months ago.
He said: “Yet again this government is putting private profit over public safety.
“Allowing staff to work with high and very high-risk-of-harm clients when they haven’t been vetted is wholly unacceptable.”
Mr Lawrence pointed out that Sodexo would need to “rely on public-sector workers to plug the gap” as it had failed to recruit enough staff.
He added: “The Justice Secretary must intervene and answer some very difficult questions.”
A ministry spokeswoman said: “All new staff will work alongside a fully-vetted member of the National Probation Service and we are committed to vetting all new recruits as soon as possible.”
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