A natural extension of the voluntary sector's ability to transform a failing public service, or a step too far that will fundamentally alter charities' relationships with their clients and the public perception of them?
Last week's news that four charities are joining with private sector companies to bid for contracts to manage new prisons has inflamed the debate about the appropriate role for charities in public service delivery. The charities - Nacro, Turning Point, Rainer Crime Concern and the Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust - are partnering with companies such as security firm G4S and commercial services company Serco.
It exposes a fault line between those voluntary organisations content to use their expertise to work with the public sector to improve services, and those prepared to make the leap into management responsibility for large-scale public institutions.
Starting from scratch
According to the charities behind the joint bids, the advantage lies in being able to design services from scratch rather than work to fulfil a contract under a regime that was not of their making.
"When new prisons are established, the best way of ensuring comprehensive resettlement in them is to be involved in designing the regimes at the earliest stage," says Paul Cavadino, chief executive of Nacro. "That means being involved in a bid."
Graham Beech, marketing and communications director at Rainer Crime Concern, which has formed a consortium with Serco and social care charity Turning Point, says: "If we're there at the start, we're better able to shape support services."
But some believe the charities are sacrificing too much for this chance to mould how prisons deal with the rehabilitation of inmates. David Wilson, professor of criminology at Birmingham City University and vice-chair of the Howard League for Penal Reform, says Nacro's involvement is a mistake and fundamentally changes its charitable mission.
He argues that it is one thing for charities to run resettlement courses within prisons, but quite another for them to become part of the management process. "If a charity won that bid, it would have a responsibility - financially, materially and culturally - for what happened in that institution," he says. "They would be accountable. If there was a murder, a suicide, a rape or an assault, they would share the managerial responsibility."
Wilson also thinks it is wrong for a charity to get into bed with private companies that have an incentive to maximise, not reduce, prison numbers. "If it is the responsibility of the state to arrest, try and sentence, then it is also a responsibility of the state to incarcerate," he says.
"Blurring that responsibility by saying it can also be a responsibility of the private sector, and blurring it even further by saying it can also be the responsibility of a charity, seems a step too far."
Cavadino says that Nacro would not be involved in managing security in the new prisons, should it win the bid. "The security company would be employing prison staff and we'd be employing resettlement staff," he says. "The Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust would employ staff on drug and alcohol programmes."
But the management responsibility of Nacro would extend to appointing the head of reducing offending, who would sit on the prison's senior management team.
Daniel Currie, a management consultant in the sector, was chief executive of the St Giles Trust, a charity that runs peer advice and drug rehabilitation schemes for prisoners, between 2000 and 2007. During his tenure, the trust considered joint work with private companies in prisons, but rejected the idea because of its lack of capacity.
Currie says charities are brave to bid to run private prisons because staff and volunteers might not like it, and it could make clients feel unsure about the charities involved. "It's pretty much certain that if you are in a prison run by a charity, you might feel less positive about that charity than if you were using its services voluntarily," he says.
Public perception is another risk. "Do people start thinking of Nacro in a different way because it runs a prison?" says Currie. "That would be more of a concern for me if I was running a charity now."
However, Currie thinks it's worth trying. "Prisons have a thin record when it comes to reducing reoffending, so any prison that has design and management input from agencies such as Nacro stands a chance of improving on the record of traditional institutions," he says. "The figures on people coming out of prison and reoffending are so high that it's worth taking some risks to see if it works."