'Small groups could lose'

Mathew Little

Crime reduction charities have warned that small voluntary sector probation service providers could be squeezed out of the market by larger players in the private and charity sectors.

The warning follows the publication last week of the Government's long-awaited Offender Management Bill, which authorises the transfer of more probation services to the voluntary and private sectors.

"The worst-case scenario is that National Offender Management Scheme commissioning is done entirely at the regional level," said William Higham, head of policy at the Prison Reform Trust. "And that means smaller players would be squeezed out. You need community responsiveness built deeply into this."

Meanwhile, the crime reduction charity Nacro warned against a "competitive free-for-all". The Bill strips local probation services of their statutory monopoly on services, but Nacro urged the formation of partnerships across the public, private and voluntary sectors, rather than single-provider contracts.

"From the outset, we have argued that the new arrangements will work best if services are commissioned on a carefully planned basis of partnership rather than by a competitive free-for-all," said Paul Cavadino, chief executive of Nacro.

He added that the commissioning process should favour bids involving partnerships with small and larger organisations. "There are strong signs that the Home Office has accepted our arguments," he said.

The probation officers' union Napo has launched a Stop the Bill campaign, claiming that the legislation will lead to the privatisation of the probation service.

- See Politics news, page 7.

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