The Ministry of Justice was keen to emphasise the voluntary sector's involvement in the consortia due to be awarded contracts potentially worth a total of £450m in the latest stage of its Transforming Rehabilitation programme.
Of the preferred bidders to take over a total of 21 regional community rehabilitation companies across England and Wales, which should start managing low and medium-risk prison leavers in the new year pending final negotiations, all but one include charity, voluntary or social sector groups. In addition, the MoJ announced, three-quarters of the 300 subcontractors involved in those preferred bids were voluntary sector or mutual organisations.
The government trumpeted this as a ground-breaking success, with a headline on its press release announcing the bids that read "Voluntary sector at forefront of new fight against reoffending". However, fears were raised that the real winners were the private firms leading most of these consortia, and that the charities and voluntary groups involved would carry too much risk. The Howard League for Penal Reform and the National Coalition for Independent Action have condemned the privatisation of a previously public service. Others wondered if the MoJ had learnt any lessons from the travails of charities in the Work Programme.
Although it is true that 20 of the 21 CRC consortia include charity or voluntary groups, they are generally minor players. Six of the contracts will go to the private company Sodexo Justice Services, in partnership with the crime-reduction charity Nacro, and another five to a partnership led by private firm Interserve, with three charities and a social enterprise under its wing.
Mike Pattinson, executive director of Crime Reduction Initiatives, a charity involved in two of the CRCs through a joint venture called the Reducing Reoffending Partnership, says CRI wanted to bid in its own right. He says scale would not have been a problem - "some of the health sector contracts we've run are bigger", he says - but felt a sole bid would have been unlikely to find favour with the ministry. The partnership CRI is involved in is led by the private firm Ingeus UK and includes the St Giles Trust. Pattinson will not reveal CRI's stake in the partnership, beyond saying it is small.
"There are some safeguards built in to the programme, which they have learnt from the Work Programme, such as the use of an industry standard partnerships agreement," he says. This includes a pledge by private firms not to pass on excessive risk to charities, but Pattinson says a full assessment of how charities stand cannot be made until final negotiations are complete.
A spokesman for Clinks, an umbrella for offenders' charities, says these negotiations are key. "It will be vital for organisations to have good legal advice when negotiating contractual terms, and to be sure they understand the contract they are signing," the spokesman says. "We cannot ignore the widespread disappointment that we haven't got a voluntary-sector preferred bidder. We will explore why this happened."