Jessica Mullen: What the future probation reforms mean for charities

02 Aug 2018 Voices

After last week's announcement about the future of outsourcing probation services Jessica Mullen from Clinks explains why the voluntary sector should be a t the centre of strengthening probation and building confidence.

Last week the government announced a major consultation on the future of probation, which will be welcome to many people working in the voluntary sector and in the criminal justice system.

Clinks has been calling for this since the publication in May of our research into the role of voluntary sector organisations in probation. The concerns we raise in that research have been echoed in a variety of other reports from the Public Accounts Committee, Justice Committee and HM Inspectorate of Probation which all highlight how the previous changes to probation, under the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms, have negatively impacted the quality of probation services. 

Rehabilitation Transformed?

In 2015, Chris Grayling’s Transforming Rehabilitation programme promised a ‘rehabilitation revolution’. It replaced the previous probation system with 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) contracted to provide support and supervision for low-medium risk offenders and a National 
Probation Service (NPS) which retained responsibility for high-risk offenders. 

The Community Rehabilitation Companies’ contracts were, in part, based on payment-by-results – the more they reduced reoffending the more they would be paid. This was intended to drive innovation. In pursuance of reductions in reoffending it was envisaged that CRCs would develop extensive supply chains. This would involve the diverse range of voluntary sector organisations who provide support to people in the criminal justice system.

The voluntary sector working in criminal justice is made up of around 1,700 organisations with a workforce larger than that of the prison and probation services combined. It has a long history of providing support alongside statutory probation services. These organisations offer specialist services to address the complex causes of offending such as homelessness, unemployment, mental ill health, and substance misuse. They do not, in the main, deliver the sentence of the court. Instead they provide the wrap around services needed to support an individual to complete that sentence and live a fulfilling life beyond it. 

But Clinks’ research has shown that the vital services these organisations provide have not been utilised to support people under probation supervision as envisaged. In fact the voluntary sector is under represented, under pressure and under resourced in the current delivery of probation. Voluntary sector involvement in supply chains is low and charities that are in supply chains have had to adapt services or subsidise them with other charitable funds, undermining their quality and sustainability. 

The unrealised vision of creating innovative probation services that contract a range of support to reduce reoffending has led to a lack of clarity about what CRCs and the NPS should be funding. This has negatively affected the ability of the voluntary sector working in criminal justice to fundraise from other sources. 

What next for probation?

The Ministry of Justice is proposing that future arrangements will be much clearer about what providers are required to deliver – something which Clinks has called for. This will be more clearly focused on 'core offender management functions' and 'delivering the standards that the courts require'. Beyond that they will also define where probation may seek to commission services, and where they should seek to influence the delivery of other local services. They also state an intention to set out a clearer role for the voluntary sector and better facilitate its involvement in the design and delivery of probation services. 

While this clarity is much needed, there is a potential contradiction and risk in the language used in the proposals. Describing offender management functions as the 'core' of probation risks interpretation that this is also the 'core' of rehabilitation and resettlement. In many cases what is 'core' to supporting a person's desistance is far more complex and the need for services that respond to that complexity, as well as consideration of how probation can secure access to them, must remain central in the development of these proposals. It will be vital, as the new contracts are developed, to ensure that these additional but nonetheless essential services are properly enabled to support offender management.

The proposals do recognise this and ask how Ministry of Justice can better engage voluntary sector providers in the design and delivery of rehabilitation and resettlement services for offenders in the community. It is welcome that Ministry of Justice are asking this question openly of the sector and recognising the value of co-designing commissioning and partnership working arrangements. 

They briefly set out some potential future models for this such as separate frameworks or dynamic purchasing systems at national and regional levels but the detail is lacking. Given the experience of many organisations under the current system, as well as recent experiences of the commissioning of families services and the current education contracts commissioning process, significant assurances will be needed by many in the sector that the lessons of the past will be learnt and applied.

Another key proposal is to better integrate the CRCs and NPS, in England, by co-locating them in 10 new probation areas, reduced from the current 21. This will mean that the areas in which future CRCs are operating will be significantly larger than they currently are. To ensure voluntary sector involvement it will be essential that consideration is given to the impact this might have on contract size and the provision of specialist and localised services.

In Wales, the proposals are significantly different, with the functions of the CRC and NPS integrated into a single organisation with responsibility for all offenders. Additional services that support rehabilitation and resettlement will then be put out to tenders to enable a range of providers and voluntary sector organisations to compete to deliver them. There is currently very little Welsh voluntary sector involvement in the Welsh CRC’s supply chain and this model will need to address this in order to ensure services are appropriately localised.

Trexit or TRlite?

There is much in these proposals to welcome and that responds to the concerns raised by Clinks’ research and others. The Ministry of Justice’s commitment to openly engage with the sector on all these issues is also good news and hopefully will mean that any future probation system will be able to take full advantage of the skills and expertise that reside in our sector. 

It is also clear that the Ministry of Justice is somewhat bound by the parameters of what it can do both politically, to avoid accusations of a full u-turn, and economically, given its current cash-strapped position. The final reforms arrived at after the consultation period must address the fundamental limitations of the current system and not just fiddle with detail and presentation or they will risk not changing anything at all.

Jessica Mullen is interim head of policy at Clinks

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