The home secretary, Charles Clarke, is to announce legislation this week to abolish local probation boards so he can take over their statutory powers and put their services supervising 200,000 offenders out to private tender.
The Guardian has learned that the plan could see private companies such as Group 4 managing dangerous offenders and advising the courts on whether to send offenders to prison and when they should be released. The decision to "market-test" probation services is believed to be the first time that an entire group of public sector professionals has been threatened with privatisation.
According to a letter from Mr Clarke to John Prescott leaked to the Guardian, the home secretary spells out that his plan to "market-test" the probation service means that the public probation service "could be left with no contracts and would therefore cease to exist" in some parts of the country.
In the letter dated September 30 2005 Mr Clarke told the deputy prime minister that he wants to "move towards a world where open contracts and tendering for all offender management services, including interventions and custody, are the norm". He says the decision to take over the probation boards' "exclusive duty to deliver probation services" will enable him to "contract directly for both prison and probation services with a range of providers from the private, not-for-profit and public sectors. This represents a radical change for the probation service."
The contracts will specify how the new providers should manage dangerous offenders, plan offenders' sentences, and engage in local partnership activity. They will also specify the level of qualifications and training of staff.
It is believed his plea to Mr Prescott, as chairman of the cabinet's domestic affairs committee, was successful in securing a slot in the parliamentary timetable for his legislation in early December. An announcement is expected to be made this week taking his management of offenders bill off the "reserve list" and getting it on to the statute book by next summer.
The move marks a speeding up of the development of the National Offender Management Service [NOMS], which has had a troubled birth in bringing together the prison and probation services.
Harry Fletcher, of the probation officers' union, Napo, said last night: "This is an extraordinary proposal which will lead to massive resistance and industrial action. If implemented it will mean privatisation of the probation service. We could have the absurd situation of Securicor or Group 4 writing court reports and recommending prison to boost numbers. It could also mean private companies advising the parole board on early release and indeed on sentencing matters."
The services run by the probation boards that would be offered to private correctional companies such as Group 4 GSL and Premier Prisons include:
· advising the courts on the most appropriate sentences for each offender and on parole decisions
· ensuring community punishments, such as community work orders, are carried out and offenders are supervised and rehabilitated
· supervising prisoners released on licence including sex offenders and those convicted of other serious violent crimes.
They also have statutory duties in relation to victims, children, local crime and youth offending teams.
Eight British soldiers killed during ambushes in Iraq were the victims of a highly sophisticated bomb first used by the IRA, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.
The soldiers, who were targeted by insurgents as they travelled through the country, died after being attacked with bombs triggered by infra-red beams. The bombs were developed by the IRA using technology passed on by the security services in a botched "sting" operation more than a decade ago.
This contradicts the British government's claims that Iran's Revolutionary Guard is helping Shia insurgents to make the devices.
The Independent on Sunday can also reveal that the bombs and the firing devices used to kill the soldiers, as well as two private security guards, were initially created by the UK security services as part of a counter-terrorism strategy at the height of the troubles in the early 1990s.
According to security sources, the technology for the bombs used in the attacks, which were developed using technology from photographic flash units, was employed by the IRA some 15 years ago after Irish terrorists were given advice by British agents.
"We are seeing technology in Iraq today that it took the IRA 20 years to develop," said a military intelligence officer with experience in Northern Ireland.
He revealed that one trigger used in a recent Iraqi bombing was a three-way device, combining a command wire, a radio signal and an infra-red beam - a technique perfected by the IRA.
Britain claims that the bomb-making expertise now being used in southern Iraq was passed on by Iran's Revolutionary Guard through Hizbollah, the revolutionary Islamist group it sponsors in Lebanon.
But a former agent who infiltrated the IRA told The Independent on Sunday that the technology reached the Middle East through the IRA's co-operation with Palestinian groups. In turn, some of these groups used to be sponsored by Saddam Hussein and his Baath party.
The former agent added: "The photographic flashgun unit was replaced with infra-red and then coded infra-red, but basically they were variations of the same device. The technology came from the security forces, but the IRA always shared its equipment and expertise with Farc guerrillas in Colombia, the Basque separatists, ETA and Palestinian groups. There is no doubt in my mind that the technology used to kill our troops in Basra is the same British technology from a decade ago."