Bob Mullen acts at Lindholme, Moorland and Hatfield prisons to protect commercial confidentiality of rival public sector bid
The governor of three prisons in South Yorkshire has ordered all probation staff off the premises after discovering that the local probation trust had formed an alliance with the private security company, G4S, to take over the running of his jails.
Bob Mullen, who is in charge of Lindholme, Moorlands and Hatfield prisons, told South Yorkshire probation trust last Friday that he was excluding all probation staff to protect the commercial confidentiality of the rival public sector bid to run the cluster of jails near Doncaster. "The probation staff in the public sector prisons were effectively marched off the premises and had their identity badges and keys taken away and were effectively locked out of their place of work," reports an internal probation service email seen by the Guardian.
The row is an embarrassment for the largest single prison privatisation programme, under which the justice secretary, Ken Clarke, has ordered that the management of nine prisons be put out to competition.
Mullen's decision means that all probation work inside the three prisons has been suspended, jeopardising rehabilitation work with the 2,000 inmates including the preparation of parole dossiers.
It has triggered urgent talks this week at the Ministry of Justice where it is believed that Steve Wagstaffe, the director of public sector prisons, refused to overturn the decision.
"It is not known at this stage how the prisons intend to deliver the services currently performed by our staff and we are trying to maintain a professional working relationship with our key contacts in each of the three locations while a resolution is being sought," Jan Hannant of the South Yorkshire probation trust told staff in an internal bulletin.
"This decision has come as a complete surprise to the trust and we are working hard to try and resolve this situation at the earliest opportunity."
Internal memos show that probation officers believe the "retaliatory action" by the prison governor is a "direct consequence of the decision by South Yorkshire probation trust to jump into bed with G4S".
Harry Fletcher of Napo, the probation union, said: "This is an unprecedented and unparalleled decision. There is a clear conflict of interest for the probation trust. We are appalled that the publicly run trust is entering into an agreement with a privately run company to make profits from publicly owned jails. The decision should be reversed without delay."
A Ministry of Justice statement said: "Arrangements are in place to ensure that probation staff are able to undertake their duties and we are confident that the situation will be resolved swiftly. There is no risk to the public."
Talks between all the parties involved to try to resolve the situation have been arranged for later this week.
The running of the South Yorkshire cluster of three prisons had been put out to tender as part of the largest wave of prison privatisation so far. Nine prisons are involved in this round of prison competition, which was launched last July.
HM Prison Service is bidding for the 15-year contracts to run all the jails in partnership with Mitie Group, an outsourcing and energy services company. But the decision by the probation trust to sign a "teaming agreement" with G4S is believed to be unprecedented and appears to have taken the justice ministry by surprise.
What is different about the bid is that the probation trust will not be a sub-contractor to the private security company but will have a seat on the G4S board and be involved in managing the prisons.
It is believed that South Yorkshire probation trust has submitted plans not only to manage offenders and run programmes to reduce reoffending rates as part of the joint G4S bid, but also on the wider management of the jails. "This is not a sub-contracting situation but us going into business with G4S. I can't see how this will benefit our members and I think they will struggle with the notion of bidding against public sector prisons," said a union source at South Yorkshire probation trust.
The justice ministry's competition strategy makes clear that the nine jails being put out to tender out of 136 prisons in England and Wales are only a first wave. The public sector is expected to win some of the bids.
The strategy document said that grouping some of the prisons together, as in South Yorkshire, "enhances the potential for innovative delivery models and economies of scale".