Harry Fletcher, who has died aged 72 of a heart attack, was a doughty fighter for victims’ rights, a public voice for probation, and a successful campaigner who played a leading role in changing the laws on stalking and domestic abuse.
For almost three decades he was the assistant general secretary of a small union, the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo), but from that obscure office he became a familiar figure on British news bulletins and around Westminster.
For generations of politicians and journalists Harry was a fount of knowledge about what was going on behind the scenes in the criminal justice system. He was also the source of a sustained series of leaks and disclosures that caused serious trouble for both Labour and Conservative ministers, and was often used as an unofficial back door to the Home Office and Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
As the Guardian’s home affairs editor from 1992 to 2018, I ran news stories based on some of Harry’s leaks, most notably in 2013 about the MoJ’s internal “risk register” for the part-privatisation of the probation service, which the then justice secretary, Chris Grayling, had refused to publish. It warned that there was a “more than 80% risk” that privatisation would lead to “an unacceptable drop in operational performance” and would probably trigger “delivery failures and reputational damage” – a warning that has unfortunately been more than vindicated.
Harry’s work on building cross-party alliances at Westminster to campaign against violence against women helped to secure the first anti-stalking legislation, with the creation of two new offences contained in the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. He then played a key role in working with the Plaid Cymru MP Elfyn Llwyd to lobby successfully in 2015 for the creation of a criminal offence of “coercive control”, which he described as “ranging from physical violence and psychological torture to social isolation and financial control”. The new offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship was inserted into the Serious Crime Act 2015.
As a qualified social worker, Harry’s focus on domestic violence followed years of hearing probation officers voice concern that it was being under-reported, and that victims were being intimidated into silence by their partners. The key to the success of many of his campaigns was his use of the personal experiences of such victims, often compiled in anonymised dossiers.
It was a similar log of personal experiences that helped to secure official recognition in 2009 of the problem of army veterans ending up in prison after leaving the forces. Harry organised an unofficial count, through Napo branches, of the number of ex-army personnel in jail, and the figures obliged the Ministry of Defence and the MoJ not only to recognise the problem but to provide greater support for those leaving the forces. It is now standard practice to keep an official count along the lines he established.
Harry was born in Burnage, Manchester, the son of Jeffrey Fletcher, a departmental manager at Dunlop, and his wife, Jemima (nee Campbell), a personnel officer at Littlewoods. He went to Layburn secondary modern school and then Manchester grammar school before taking a degree at the University of East Anglia and qualifying as a social worker at Bristol University in 1974.
After a period as a social worker in Waltham Forest, east London, he joined the National Council for One Parent Families in 1977, learning his campaigning skills there before joining Napo in 1984. He served the union for 29 years until 2013, when he left to work as a political consultant on stalking, domestic abuse and digital abuse, becoming an adviser to Plaid Cymru on such matters in 2016.
Over the years, Harry built up a wide network of contacts in parliament and the media, feeding them detailed research that documented the impact of criminal justice policy on individuals. His sustained supply of leaks was fuelled by a nose for a story that was as strong as any journalist’s, and he had a fierce commitment to protecting his sources.
He was also exceptionally good in the public arena. In many high profile and notorious criminal cases, including those highlighting failings by the police, courts and prison and probation services, he was able to explain to the public in straightforward language exactly what had gone wrong and why, long before any bland official inquiry report had been produced.
His expertise was much in demand, including, in recent years, by the scriptwriters of the Public Enemies television series about probation officers. On one occasion he took the scriptwriting team to visit a hostel and a probation office after they had been refused access by the MoJ. As recently as December 2019 he was interviewed by major broadcasters and newspapers to provide background on the London Bridge terrorist attack.
He is survived by his partner, Kate Gilbert, his sons, George and William, and a grandson, Orly.
• Harry Jeffrey Fletcher, criminal justice campaigner, born 27 January 1947; died 8 January 2020