Probation workers barred in private jails row

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Probation workers may take industrial action after they were ordered out of three Yorkshire prisons in a row over jail privatisation.

Sixteen South Yorkshire probation officers have been expelled from Lindholme, Moorland and Hatfield prisons after a governor learned their trust had formed an alliance with private firm G4S to take over the running of the jails.

Lindholme prison governor Bob Mullen is understood to have taken the decision to protect the “commercial confidentiality” of a rival public-sector bid to run the jails, which have effectively been put out for tender by Justice Secretary Ken Clarke.

MPs have tabled parliamentary questions on the issue and the Justice Unions Parliamentary Group is to convene an urgent meeting of South Yorkshire MPs.

According to an internal email seen by the Yorkshire Post, probation staff “were effectively marched of (sic) prison premises and had their identity badges and keys taken away and were effectively locked out of their place of work.”

The assistant general secretary of the probation officers’ union Napo, Harry Fletcher, said South Yorkshire members would meet to discuss whether to declare a dispute with the trust on the grounds they were not informed of its agreement with G4S.

Such a declaration would put the branch on the road towards industrial action, he added.

Mr Fletcher said Mr Mullen’s decision was “extraordinary and unparalleled”, adding there was a “clear conflict of interest for South Yorkshire Probation Trust”.

“The decision has had the effect of alienating staff in both prisons and probation and puts all employees in an impossible position,” he said. Napo is appalled that the publicly run trust is entering into an agreement with a privately run company to make profits from publicly owned jails.”

Mr Fletcher said he understood a public-sector bid to run the jails involves Humberside Probation Trust, effectively putting two neighbouring trusts in direct competition with each other.

In an internal memo to staff, the South Yorkshire trust’s lead officer for prisons, Jan Hannant, wrote: “It is not known at this stage how the prisons intend to deliver the services currently performed by our staff and we are trying to maintain a professional working relationship with our key contacts in each of the three locations whilst a resolution is being sought.

“This decision has come as a complete surprise to the trust and we are working hard to try and resolve this situation at the earliest opportunity.”

Probation staff normally based in the prisons have instead been allocated work for the trust’s four local delivery units, located in Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield. The trust has offered to pay staff their extra mileage.

In an official statement, it said it had an agreement with each of the three prisons to deliver offender management services.

“Our staff in these prisons perform essential tasks that, we believe, require their skills and expertise, supervising high risk offenders and reducing their risk of reoffending once released from custody.

“We recognise that we are working in a competitive market and we are committed to play our part, as appropriate, in the competitions run by the National Offender Management Service.

“We believe we offer the public purse the best possible value as an Offender Management Organisation, reducing reoffending by 12.4 per cent against the national average of 0.70 per cent.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “Arrangements are in place to ensure that probation staff are able to undertake their duties and we are confident that the situation will be resolved swiftly.”