JUSTICE Secretary Chris Grayling defended claims that privatising part of the probation service would put offenders and victims at risk when he visited Swindon yesterday.

Mr Grayling visited Wiltshire Probation Trust to meet staff to discuss the controversial changes to the probation system, which will see 70 per cent of the existing public sector probation service become 21 community rehabilitation companies to be run under government contracts by private bidders.

Only 30 per cent of offenders who are most at risk of serious re-offending will continue to be seen by the remaining centrally-run public sector arm of the service after 35 local probation trusts are closed down.

Mr Grayling said: “The main reason for the change is that we have about 50,000 people a year who get prison sentences of less than 12 months who are not required to see probation after they leave, and 60 per cent of them go on to re-offend.The changes are about creating a more efficient, stream-lined service.”

But one of the main concerns raised by members of the National Association of Probation Officers union (Napo), is that offenders moving from a medium to a high risk category will have to move across different organisations to see a probation worker, and cost-cutting could see high risk offenders left on the street.

Albertine Davies, Napo’s secretary in Swindon, said: “It is a matter of life or death. We supervise the most dangerous people in our community. Corners will be taken if people are trying to boost their profit margins for their share holders, which will mean more crime, more victims and ultimately some of these will die.

“Many offenders need routine and many probation officers develop relationships with offenders they see. This will be lost if they have to switch between agencies.

“They’re not even going to pilot it. And they’re planning to roll it out nationally with no evidence that it will work, and with a significant amount of evidence that risk to the public will be increased.”

Despite admitting to having no hands-on experience of the probation service, Mr Grayling reassured the public that the tender process will not be a matter of cost-cutting, and that public sector workers would be located within the same office as workers in the private service.

He said: “This is not a tender process based on finances, it’s a process to find the companies who can use their innovative skills to provide the best quality service in the long term.

“Public sector workers will be working across the office from their colleagues working with medium and low risk offenders. They will be co-located in the same place. Nobody will be left unsupervised.”

Napo is asking the public to sign an online petition. Go to www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/ stop-risking-public-safety.