Probation chiefs have accused Chris Grayling of gambling with public safety by selling the service to private companies.
Workers in the North East will stage a 36-hour walk out next week as they urge the Justice Secretary to pull the plug on plans to off-load more than 60% of the service.
Government officials claim the reforms were aimed at cutting re-offending and would “address the glaring gap that sees 50,000 short sentenced prisoners released on to the streets each year with no support”.
Last night Mike Quinn, the region’s spokesman for the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo), said probation workers in the Northumbria area drove the best performing unit in the country.
And he said splitting the organisation would lead to a “gap” in services and lead to a greater risk of offenders committing more serious crime while the changes are pushed through. Mr Quinn said: “The new private organisations will look after the medium to low-risk offenders but that doesn’t mean they are shoplifters. These are people who have committed domestic violence and serious violent offences being managed by a private organisation. The important thing with risk is that it can change overnight.
“Two different organisations means there could potentially be a massive gap in the service which poses a risk to the public.
“We perform exceptionally well by the Government’s own standards but now we will see private companies making profit out of the victims of crime.”
Across Napo’s Northumbria branch, reoffending rates amongst Probation supervised offenders have fallen by an average of 7.2% since 2007. A recent inspection by the HM Inspectorate of Probation found Northumbria Probation Trust had a “well-deserved reputation for high performance”.
But under the reforms, the National Probation Service will be sliced in two with the current system looking after the most serious offenders while private companies supporting low and medium-risk offenders. It’s thought contracts worth a staggering £450m have been offered to firms and charities who want to help criminals stay out of trouble.
Mr Quinn said: “Instead of recognising and valuing the hard work and achievements of the Trusts in the North East in reducing re-offending and protecting the public, the Government are choosing instead to take a reckless gamble with public safety.”
The plans have sparked an angry reaction and on Monday Napo members from Durham Tees Valley and Northumbria branches will stage a rally at Greys Monument in Newcastle. Crime Commissioner Vera Baird and Napo chairman Tom Rendon will the address the workers.
The strike, the second in five months and only the fifth in the Union’s history extends to the day the Probation Trust was due to split.
Solicitors last night lent their support to the movement and said they would be holding simultaneous strike action as they oppose cuts to legal aid.
Lewis Pearson, who acted as a local Law Society representative at a steering group earlier this year, said: “The way probation workers have been dealt with has been extremely shoddy.
“The result of these plans is that is completely undermines and demoralises important members of our legal process. They are very devoted, conscientious, hard working public servants and they way they have been treated has been an absolute disgrace.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “It is very disappointing that Napo has chosen to strike when we are making positive progress towards the implementation of these vital reforms.
“We are pleased that Napo, along with the other probation trade unions, have recently ratified a National Agreement on staff transfer that will provide a series of protections for probation staff. We are therefore surprised that they have now chosen to adopt this unhelpful course of action.
“Probation Trusts have well established contingency arrangements to deal with any potential action and we will continue to support staff and engage with unions as our reforms move forward.”