Using criminals as ‘free workers’

Prisoners on a community project, (below) Coun John Singleton and (bottom) Coun Fred Jackson.

Prisoners on a community project, (below) Coun John Singleton and (bottom) Coun Fred Jackson.

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TOWN hall bosses were today accused of using criminals as free labour to undertake thousands of hours of work.

A Freedom of Information request has revealed the community payback team carried out more than 23,000 hours of work for the council in 2011 –while the council shelled out £40,000 to sponsor their probation officers.

Coun John Singleton

Coun John Singleton

Coun John Singleton, who sits on neighbouring Fylde Council, claims the work should be carried out by council staff and is stopping offenders working on community projects elsewhere – but Blackpool Council stressed it was vital work which would otherwise not get done.

Coun Singleton said he has been waiting months to secure a community payback team to carry out work on Staining’s Scout hut, but has been unable to fix a date for the project.

He added: “When I investigated this issue it would appear, in my humble opinion, that Blackpool Council is backfilling what should be paid jobs with free labour at the expense of projects in other parts of Fylde.

“I appreciate, like all other councils, Blackpool is having to make savings but in my opinion it is not right to reduce headcount then contract Community Payback to provide free labour – at the expense of other areas – to work alongside retained council staff.”

Coun Fred Jackson

Coun Fred Jackson

Two groups of six offenders work the equivalent of five day weeks for Blackpool’s neighbourhood services department – supervised by two paid probation officers –in the town centre and promenade area and on the south shore team.

The arrangement is a formal agreement and although the officers are employed by the Probation Service the council sponsor them to the tune of £3,400 a month.

More offenders are provided to work with the neighbourhood teams on a daily basis.

Coun Fred Jackson, responsible for Blackpool Council’s neighbourhood services, said: “There has been a clear understanding throughout that Community Payback has not, does not and never will be used to replace work performed by council staff.

“The council will meet its obligations as far as its budget will allow and we are fortunate we are able to take advantage of this arrangement to supplement our efforts.

“The work involved is usually hard physical labour including clearing overgrown and litter strewn areas and alleys, clearing wind blown sand from areas which we would not otherwise have time to get to, and tackling graffiti before it starts to have an impact on communities.

“In that sense the community derives a real benefit from this scheme which is entirely in keeping with its aims.”

And senior probation officer Chris Ward said the service has a number of “successful partnership contracts” with local authorities – and the contracts did not prevent payback work throughout the community.

He said: “These partnerships do not take paid jobs away from council employees.

“Offenders carrying out Community Payback provide hours of unpaid work on top of the time council employees spend improving the community and environment, allowing work to be done that would otherwise not be.

“I am aware of the request to work at Staining Scout hut and we have assessed that it will take five to 10 days to complete.

“We are working hard to fit this in around our other projects in the community and we will speak to Councillor Singleton to finalise the arrangements.”