Whistle-blowers criticise privatised probation service

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Media captionWhistleblowers from Serco and the London Probation Trust spoke to Dino Sofos for Newsnight

Whistle-blowers have told the BBC's Newsnight of serious failings in the first probation service in England and Wales to be privatised.

They said community service projects were not properly supervised and there were inaccuracies in reporting cases of offenders not attending such schemes.

The revelations come as the government is poised to unveil plans to privatise probation services elsewhere.

Serco, one of the companies running the service in London, denies the claims.

The allegations were brought to light by a member of Serco staff and a probation manager working for the London Probation Trust (LPT).

Newsnight was told the failings were making it "increasingly hard to enforce justice".

The programme has also been shown emails and internal documents supporting the claims.

In 2012, Serco and LPT were jointly awarded a four-year contract to supervise offenders in the capital on probation doing unpaid work in the community.

At the time the Ministry of Justice said the contract would save taxpayers £25m.

The Serco employee, who spoke anonymously to Newsnight, said there were insufficient resources to ensure offenders on so-called community payback projects were properly supervised.

"There are not enough projects and there are not enough staff. The projects we have are oversubscribed and anything oversubscribed causes problems," he said.

Oversubscription is standard practice for probation trusts because some participants always fail to turn up. This was already the case in London when Serco and LPT took over.

The government invited private firms to tender for the London community service contracts precisely because it felt the system "did not always command public confidence".

The probation manager working for LPT, who did not want his identity revealed, also pointed to a number of other shortcomings.

One of the incidents he listed happened after a supervisor assigned to a project failed to turn up.

"I've had someone who was put in hospital by another offender because they were arguing about the fact that a supervisor hadn't attended," he said.

The whistle-blowers have also raised concerns about the way in which offenders' attendance was recorded and the information passed on.

Image caption Security company Serco denies the allegations

There are said to have been delays and inaccuracies in the reporting of occasions where offenders have breached their sentences by failing to attend payback projects.

In a small number of cases, these have caused problems when the breaches are dealt with in court.

Tom Rendon, of the Napo trade union, which represents probation staff, said: "We're finding it increasingly hard to enforce justice in these cases because the quality of the evidence often isn't there.

"We have got be sure that we've got a robust case. We're now relying on Serco [for the information] and that information is often incomplete or it's late, or it's of dubious quality.

"So when we take orders to court, sometimes we're having to withdraw them and then apologise on behalf of the private company."

Mr Rendon puts the problems down to the way the probation contract was awarded.

"Whatever the quality of the bids, the cheapest would always win. Serco and London Probation we think came in the cheapest and now the cracks are really starting to show," he said.

Newsnight showed the findings of its investigation to Professor Rod Morgan, who is a former Chief Inspector of Probation for England and Wales.

"It is difficult to judge as to whether these are isolated cases, or whether they're getting better or worse," he said.

"But you've shown me sufficient material that it raises serious questions. In my judgement, there's a sufficient quantity of evidence here for someone to be taking a very close look at it."

In a statement, Serco told Newsnight: "Together with London Probation Trust, we manage around 1,000 new offenders every month and each one is thoroughly risk assessed before being allocated an appropriate place on one of the many projects we have running across London.

"We are confident that the innovative changes we have introduced in London are increasing operational efficiencies and ultimately saving the taxpayer money," they added.

In a separate statement, the Ministry of Justice said: "Public safety has not been compromised in the delivery of this contract which has provided one million hours of offender labour for London.

"Serco's performance has been improving month on month - latest July figures show 80% of offenders successfully completing their payback, 3% above the national average.

"All offenders are thoroughly risk assessed before being placed on a community payback project and breaches are dealt with robustly.

"As with all innovative ways of working, there were some bedding-in issues during the transition stage and we are satisfied these have been resolved.

"Our audit of all contracts the Ministry of Justice holds with both Serco and G4S is ongoing."

The ministry plans to extend the involvement of private companies in probation services elsewhere in England and Wales.

It is understood as much as 70% of the service is scheduled to be put out to tender.

Napo has criticised the plans, saying they put the public at risk.

See more from Dino Sofos on Newsnight on BBC Two at 22:30 GMT on Thursday 21 November. You can also catch up later on the Newsnight website and BBC iPlayer. Listen to Dino's report on 5 Live Drive .

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