Opinion: Is our work with difficult people properly valued?

Julia Neuberger, a Liberal Democrat peer and chair of the Commission on the Future of Volunteering

"Errors let a rapist walk free" ran the headline in The Observer on 1 October.

"Dangerous criminal removed tag and absconded from hostel after catalogue of blunders". Kelly Edney had removed his electronic tag and fled, "despite being classed as one of the most dangerous offenders released from prison under licence". He had been released under 'enhanced supervision': he was supposed to be checked on every half hour by staff at the hostel where he lived, Box Tree Cottage in Bradford, run by the Langley House Trust, "a charity that works with offenders". The story suggested there was a failure in communication between staff at the hostel, Securicor, which was responsible for the tagging, and the probation service.

The article did not say there was a problem with such dangerous people being cared for by the voluntary sector - which does not mean it was not on the agenda: no doubt that particular 'thought' will emerge in further reporting. There is still strong public resistance to such offenders being housed in hostels anywhere near them, and a further resistance to them being looked after by the voluntary sector, or anyone but the prison service.

This may go back to the case of John Rous, a man with a history of severe mental illness who in 1993 killed Jonathan Newby, a young volunteer working in a hostel run by the Cyrenians in Oxford. People were rightly shocked that Newby had been left alone with Rous, who had been known to the criminal justice system since he was 17. The official report criticised the local authority's housing and social services departments, as well as the Cyrenians and its management committee. But it also argued that the voluntary sector should realise it was no longer providing exceptional care for people for whom the social services could not find a home but, rather, providing mainstream care - so it needed to maintain professional standards and be professionally accountable.

No one would doubt that now. But one problem about contracts for managing very difficult people is that they often fail to recognise how demanding of staff time these groups are. The voluntary sector has to ask itself whether it should continue to do it if government, national or local, does not offer sufficiently generous terms. Is government prepared to give the voluntary sector sufficient resources to do the job well and to provide adequate support, including emotional support, for its staff?

If not, the sector should refuse to carry on, pointing out that it is carrying out a statutory duty on behalf of the Government and is not prepared to do it unless it is fully resourced.

This time, it is not a question of which sector carried out these duties, but of how much they are valued. I would argue that the jury is out on this, because government departments and local authorities need to squeeze costs. The sector should not let them do so when it comes to looking after people who are hard to manage, with staff who need considerable support.

AND WHILE WE'RE ON THE SUBJECT ...

- The Langley House Trust was created in 1958 by a group of Christians wanting to help ex-offenders. Their model was to reduce re-offending rates by offering former prisoners a home with a husband and wife who would act as 'house parents'. The first general secretary was John Dodd, who had been a POW during the Second World War.

- The trust has 17 sites across the country, including fresh-start projects, drug rehabilitation centres, residential training centres, resettlement projects (including women's projects), registered care homes and homelessness projects.

- It emerged in the inquiry into the killing of Jonathan Newby that Rous had called the police half an hour before the fatal stabbing, saying that he was going to kill someone and "tear out his liver". No action was taken in time.

- The National Offender Management Service, headed by the former director of the Communities Group at the Home Office, Helen Edwards, is committed to giving the voluntary sector wider opportunities to deliver offender management services. However, recent decisions to build more prisons have reduced the available budget.

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