A vast chunk of the probation service has been put up for sale by the Government under controversial reforms to privatise the rehabilitation of offenders in England and Wales.
A package of £450 million-worth of contracts has been offered up to private and voluntary sector organisations, covering the supervision of 225,000 low and medium-risk offenders each year on a payment-by-results basis.
With the likes of under-fire firms G4S and Serco set to bid for the work, probation service workers took to the streets in protest at the Government's plans to "axe services designed to keep communities safe".
But Justice Secretary Chris Grayling insisted the reforms were necessary to bring down re-offending, adding more than 600,000 offences were committed last year by repeat offenders. He said: "The scale of interest in these contracts from so many diverse and creative organisations is extremely encouraging. This is great news for the public who will finally benefit from the best of the private and voluntary sectors, working together with the public sector, to cut reoffending."
Contracts are to be split across 20 English regions and one Welsh region, while the National Probation Service (NPS), a new public sector organisation tasked with rehabilitating 31,000 high-risk offenders each year, is also to be formed. The competition will continue through 2014, with contracts awarded by 2015.
All offenders will be given initial risk assessments by the NPS and if a low or medium risk offender later becomes high risk, contract providers will transfer the offender to the NPS.
More than 700 organisations from across the world have expressed interest in the contracts, the MoJ said, including hundreds of British firms. Just under 400 voluntary sector organisations, such as charities, have also shown interest, while a number of small businesses have considered joining with other organisations to deliver services. Around 30 larger organisations are considering partnering with smaller firms to bid for contracts.
Members of giant union Unison, GMB and Napo (National Association of Probation Officers) claim the plans will "axe services designed to keep communities safe, as well as introduce potentially dangerous cost cutting measures in the relentless pursuit of profit".
Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said: "Probation service workers aim to protect communities by supervising the most dangerous offenders leaving prison. They also play a vital role in rehabilitating offenders so they can reintegrate into society.
"The Government's aim is to wash its hands of any responsibility for maintaining a safe and efficient probation service. This is a risk too far and it is clear that the Government has not thought through the long-term consequences of these reckless plans."