Editorial: Noms Bill makes sector a political football

The National Offender Management Bill scraped through its third reading in the House of Commons last week, and the next day the Government and its allies began a propaganda offensive designed to limit the mauling it will certainly receive when it goes to the House of Lords, writes Third Sector editor, Stephen Cook.

The Home Secretary, John Reid, put out a statement saying how "saddened" he was that a Conservative Party that purports to put the voluntary sector at the heart of its electoral strategy should oppose a bill that widens the scope for voluntary organisations to contribute to the rehabilitation of offenders.

He didn't share his emotions about the highly cogent speeches made during the debate by some of the 24 Labour MPs who voted against the bill and halved the Government's majority.

Perhaps the pithiest summary of the problems with the Noms Bill came when one MP described it as a dog's breakfast - read the debate to decide whether that's a fair description or not. But the most worrying aspect of it all is that the voluntary sector has become - and to some extent has allowed itself to become - a political football in the now-familiar game of a tired government ramming through yet more ill-considered legislation that will be of doubtful benefit on the ground.

The Government claims the bill would bring more opportunities for the voluntary sector. But the voluntary sector is deeply and creatively involved in the criminal justice system already, and does not need new legislation to allow it to become still more involved. In as far as the bill would create new opportunities, these would be for those larger charities that are able to operate at the regional level at which Noms will commission services. With some reservations, the larger charities are, of course, keen on this, and so have been less than vocal about their reservations.

Many smaller charities, meanwhile, are extremely worried that they will be elbowed out, but have in the main chosen to put their faith in promises of consultation and subcontracting rather than make a fuss.

But as the debate goes on, it is vital to nail the ya-boo suggestion that anyone who opposes the bill is working against the interests of the voluntary sector - a serious charge in a world where all the political parties purport to be the sector's greatest friend.

Principled opposition to the bill is perfectly compatible with supporting the voluntary sector to the hilt.

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