TWO Northumberland prisons could be privatised as probation services are further opened up to competition, the Government announced yesterday.
Acklington and Castington prisons will join Durham prison in the selection for competition in the autumn – with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) declaring the aim was “to balance the need to increase efficiency” and fulfil the Government’s plans for a “rehabilitation revolution”.
The MoJ said they were chosen based on “the potential for efficiency improvements, service reform and innovation, not on the basis of poor performance”. It comes in the wake of previously announced plans to merge the two prisons.
Core probation services – potentially such as the supervision of criminals and the writing of pre-sentence reports – will also be tested against the Government’s policy of increased competition, it was confirmed.
Berwick MP Alan Beith, whose constituency is home to the two prisons, said: “It is worrying time for the prison staff but so much good work has gone on at Acklington and Castington that my hope is they will bid successfully for it to remain a public sector prison.”
On changes to the probation service, he said he had gathered evidence for a report due to be published by the Commons justice committee that he chairs.
The Liberal Democrat MP said: “There is wide acceptance that particularly amongst charities and voluntary organisation as well as some private sector organisations, there is a lot of potential to cut re-offending with programmes that reintegrate offenders back into society when they have served their sentence.
“It is challenging but it is a real opportunity to cut crime.”
Nick Hall, acting chief executive of Northumbria Probation Trust, said: “Probation trusts have been notified that a small working group will be formed to consider the future direction of probation services.
“Probation trusts are being consulted and I will take every opportunity to contribute to this process. As always, protecting the public and reducing reoffending remain our key priorities.”
Harry Fletcher, probation union Napo assistant general secretary, claimed privatisation so far had been a “disaster” and warned offenders had multiple problems that required trained, experienced and dedicated staff.
“Selling off the work to the lowest bidder for profit will not raise standards. Indeed the reverse is the case,” he said. “The quality of the work will fall and public protection will be compromised.”
Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan questioned why a total of nine jails were being put out to competition and two prison closed.
Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said: “The public have a right to expect continuing improvement in the quality and efficiency of public services, without compromising public safety.”
He promised to draw on expertise from the private and voluntary sector working with a “strong” public sector – with payment by results to reduce reoffending widened. He added: “I have asked my officials to explore the possible options for service improvements and different models of delivering offender services within the community. I will set out my preferred approach in the autumn.”