Page last updated at 01:17 GMT, Friday, 19 June 2009 02:17 UK

Probation 'told to under-spend'

By Danny Shaw
Home affairs correspondent, BBC News

Dano Sonnex
Sonnex was known to police as a violent offender

BBC News has seen an official letter which appears to cast doubt on claims by Justice Secretary Jack Straw that probation failings in the Dano Sonnex case were due to staff mismanaging their resources.

Sonnex, who is 23, was convicted along with Nigel Farmer, of murdering two French students at their flat in New Cross, south-east London.

At the time, in June 2008, Sonnex was on licence, under probation supervision.

Mr Straw said a budget underspend by the London probation service was evidence that staff had failed to manage their resources effectively.

But the letter suggests probation areas were actively encouraged to under spend.

We will try to support the maximum level of under spending
Extract from a letter written by then director of probation Roger Hill

On 8 June, Mr Straw told MPs that the failings in probation work highlighted by the Sonnex case were not the result of a lack of resources.

He said probation funding had increased by 70% in real terms since 1997, and that London Probation had underspent its £154m budget by £3.5m - about 2%.

"This was a failure to use the resources available to London Probation effectively," Mr Straw said.

But the letter, bearing the crest of Mr Straw's department, makes clear that probation areas would be allowed to carry over at least 2% of their budget from 2008/09 to the following year.

Written by then director of probation Roger Hill, it says: "We will guarantee 2% in the budget exchange scheme and we hope to be able to increase this.

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"Consequently, we will try to support the maximum level of under spending."

The letter, sent to local chief probation officers last October, was copied to senior officials in the National Offender Management Service, which is part of the Ministry of Justice.

The Probation Chiefs Association confirmed that that they had been advised in October 2008 that they could carry forward 2% of their budget to the next financial year.

In a statement, Sue Hall and Steve Collett, the joint vice-chairs, said: "This was welcomed as the National Probation Service was facing a significant budget cut in 2009/10.

"The ability to carry forward savings would have helped to minimise the impact and would have been seen as a prudent step and good financial management."

There is absolutely no inconsistency between this letter and what Jack Straw said
Ministry of Justice spokesman

Harry Fletcher, from the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "Probation chiefs were encouraged by senior officials at the Ministry of Justice to under spend for contingencies for the next financial year."

But the Ministry of Justice defended its position.

A spokesman said: "There is absolutely no inconsistency between this letter and what Jack Straw said in the House of Commons.

"The bottom line is that money must be used effectively, and in the case of London probation it was not."

The spokesman added: "Probation areas have not been encouraged to under spend but, on their request, were given advice on what would happen to underspend that they were already forecasting."



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