Editorial: The government has listened on Transforming Rehabilitation, but money will be tight

Voluntary organisations feature strongly in the programme to reduce reoffending, writes Stephen Cook, but have ministers underestimated the cost and nature of the undertaking?

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

The headline on the government’s press notice this week made it clear what ministers wanted to emphasise about Transforming Rehabilitation, the programme that will give post-release support for the first time to some 45,000 people who emerge from prison each year after serving less than 12 months. "Voluntary sector at forefront of new fight against offending," it read.

The release gave details of the "preferred bidders" that will – barring mishaps – be awarded the contracts in each of the 21 programme areas in England and Wales, and charities, social enterprises and other types of not-for-profit organisations do indeed feature in seven of the eight partnerships that are being lined up. In Durham Tees Valley, there are no private companies involved. Of 300 subcontractors the Ministry of Justice says will be play a part, three-quarters are voluntary organisations.

So there seems little doubt that the government has listened to the sector’s advocates, including the Office for Civil Society, and done more than was originally planned to include sector organisations that have the knowledge and skills to make a vital contribution to this ambitious project. So far, so good. Catch 22 and Turning Point are two large charities that are not involved, as might have been expected, but there could be many reasons for that.

It seems clear that no charities will be lead partners, and the giant private providers Sodexo and Interserve are the first-named organisations in six and five areas respectively, making together more than half of the total. The more sceptical observers have homed in on this and portrayed the programme as another feeding frenzy for the private sector.

But it was never realistic to expect that charities would be strong enough financially to play the lead role. They are in most cases going to be junior partners, and the crucial questions are about what that will mean in practice. What weight will their voice have in making policy and decisions? Will the work and the income be equitably apportioned? Will the more powerful lead partners protect the smaller partners against the delays and vagaries of payment by results (a key and potentially problematic aspect of the programme, which was played down in the aforementioned press notice)?

Always in people’s minds is the cautionary tale of the Work Programme, which began with similar talking-up of the role of the voluntary sector, but which ended in frustration and bad blood in many cases. Some charities had to pull out, citing among other things "creaming and parking", where the easy-to-place unemployed were handled by the main partners and paid for quickly while the difficult cases were handed to the junior partners and subcontractors.

But even if the pitfalls of the Work Programme are avoided, there are bigger questions facing Transforming Rehabilitation. A rump of the Probation Service will remain in existence to work with more serious offenders, but the rest of the organisation is, in effect, being dismantled. Some mutuals established by former probation officers feature in the preferred-provider partnerships, and no doubt the private sector has employed some former probation staff. The charities involved have relevant experience, but will there really be, in aggregate, enough of the right expertise to take on this huge project effectively?

And finally, there is the money. It will inevitably be tight, and it might be that ministers have underestimated how complex a problem reoffending is and the extent and nature of the resources required to mitigate it. Getting people to move away from crime involves housing, family relationships, social networks, personal motivation and – crucially – employment. Some of these are expensive, some are intractable, some are both. There’s far more to it than the rather romantic notion of giving everyone an inspiring mentor when they emerge from the prison gate.

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