Plans to replace probation staff ‘with machines’

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PROBATION staff in could soon be replaced by machines as part of a cost-cutting exercise, it has emerged.

Private probation service operator Sodexo has announced plans to axe 134 staff across South Tyneside, Sunderland, Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland.

This will include the loss of an estimated 30 probation officers throughout the region, in addition to other frontline and administration staff.

It is feared the job losses - which will also impact on management staff - will go by compulsory redundancies if not enough staff put in for voluntary redundancy.

Meanwhile, it has emerged that Sodexo intends to introduce electronic kiosks so offenders can report in - without having to see a probation officer.

The machines, which use fingerprint recognition technology to check identities, would allow an offender to report in, to give and receive information and to request a face-to-face meeting with a probation officer.

Offenders are also to be allowed to report into probation using the kiosks as a reward for good compliance with the early stages of their supervision order or prison release licence.

One North East probation officer, and member of the Napo trade union, said: “It’s a scary thought that they can set up call centres and reporting kiosks to solve service users’ - that’s offenders - problems. With recent cuts in our police force and cuts in probation expect crime rates and serious offences to increase. God knows what chaos will follow when face to face contact with offenders is replaced with call centres or machines.”

Ian Lawrence, Napo general secretary, said: “We are angry and disappointed about this news. When we met with Sodexo earlier this year they told us there would be no reductions in workforce. The use of call centres and machines instead of highly skilled staff is downright dangerous and will put the public at risk.”

A Sodexo spokesperson said: “We are in the process of sharing our future plans with employees. Given that we will be formally consulting on these plans, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage.”

Sodexo’s spokesperson added that in relation to the enhanced voluntary redundancy scheme the company was “complying with the national agreement negotiated between the unions and the national offender management service”.

The majority of probation services across the UK were privatised in February this year by justice secretary Chris Grayling.