Unions are furious with government plans that will see offenders released from prison and those serving community sentences reporting to electronic kiosks rather than probation officers.
They are warning that the move, which will be introduced in a pilot scheme to be run in two London boroughs, Bexley and Bromley, and will be expanded across the capital if successful, could put the public at greater risk and is designed to cut staff numbers. But the government has defended the scheme, which will run from June until the end of the year, saying it will let probation officers spend more time with offenders.
Under the plan, offenders will log into the purple machines, located in probation service offices, using fingerprints. Biometric reporting, as it is known, is used in the US, where the machines interact with up to 300 offenders.
The machines ask offenders a series of questions, including whether they have changed their address or job and if they have been arrested since their last report or wish to speak to someone. Probation service managers will also be able to add individually tailored questions to those asked by the machines, which are believed to cost around £130,000 a year to operate.
An internal briefing document for London Probation managers, which has been obtained by the Observer, notes: "There are sensitivities around the project ? there is union opposition to biometric reporting and media interest in the trial is anticipated. Biometric reporting potentially provides a significant opportunity to reduce the risk from offenders. A pilot is essential to demonstrate and quantify those benefits, so as to inform decisions about its use."
It claims the kiosks will allow for "an increase in management of higher risk offenders as a result of time savings in offender reporting" and a "quicker use of police intelligence to re-evaluate an offender's risk". But it also notes "removal of contact removes the potential for an early warning of escalating risk" and that "lack of personal contact with offenders reduces offender managers' ability to provide support".
London Probation Trust (LPT) is understood to have sought legal advice about whether it could require offenders to use the machines.
But Napo, the probation officers' union, said that it was "appalled" at the development which it claimed had been made without consulting staff. The union claims the LPT has failed to carry out an Equality Impact Assessment and may be in breach of European rules on community sanctions.
"When the idea of machines, rather than face-to-face contact, was first mooted, staff thought it was a hoax," said Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the probation union, Napo. "Sadly it is now grim reality."
Government-sponsored research suggests personal relationships with offenders is important in the probation service. Currently, 75% of probation officers' time is spent on administration, leaving only 25% for contact.
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "The risk in a competitive, cash-strapped climate is that information and communications technology is installed in bleak, isolated institutions ? not as a useful supplement to, but as a poor substitute for, face-to-face contact with good, professional staff. Going from 1884 to 1984 doesn't make for a modern, effective penal system."
Napo warned that offenders will have difficulty complying with the machine because of their chaotic lifestyles.
"The vast majority of offenders have serious literacy problems, many are dyslexic, most have two or more mental illnesses and desperately need face-to-face contact and supervision," Fletcher said.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice denied claims that the kiosks were being installed as a cost-cutting exercise: "This is a misrepresentation. The LPT is investigating a range of innovative approaches to allow professionals to cut bureaucracy and spend their time more effectively with the of fenders they supervise. Public protection will always be our priority."