Privatisation of probation services clears final hurdle

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Peers have given their backing to the government's plans to allow probation services to be run by private companies, despite a last-ditch attempt by Labour and crossbenchers to block the move.

In January, the government published a white paper proposing that public-sector probation trusts should be replaced with privately run community rehabilitation companies, with responsibilities defined in the Offender Rehabilitation Bill.

When the bill was in the Commons, MPs threw out a clause inserted by peers that would have required both Houses of Parliament to approve the government's plans for the future of probation services.

But when the bill returned to the Lords for consideration of Commons amendments on 11 March 2013, peers led by crossbencher Lord Ramsbotham attempted to insist on that requirement.

Lord Ramsbotham, a former chief inspector of prisons, urged: "measured evolution is a more responsible approach to a duty to protect the public than the avoidable upheaval of an enforced unproven revolution."

Lord Beecham, speaking for Labour, gave his support to Lord Ramsbotham, and accused the government of having "no intention of listening to the views of this House" as well as putting faith in private contractors "despite repeated evidence of their shortcomings and in some cases highly dubious practices".

Justice Minister Lord Faulks disagreed, maintaining that radical reform is needed to "provide long overdue support to some of the most vulnerable people in our criminal justice system".

He told peers: "We have a choice here - either to make cuts to the current system, which does not provide supervision to the short-sentenced offenders who need it most or reform it so our resources can provide support to all offenders who need it."

Peers sided with the minister in that choice, voting 263 to 243 against Lord Ramsbotham's amendment insisting on parliamentary approval for the break-up of the National Probation Service.

The 35 probation trusts will be replaced by 21 private community rehabilitation companies, supervising about 160,000 low- and medium-risk offenders each year.

Supervision of the most dangerous ex-offenders, including those with convictions for violence and sex crimes, will remain with the National Probation Service.

The wording of the bill has now been agreed by Parliament and will become law following royal assent.

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