When the Ministry of Justice announced the preferred bidders for its Transforming Rehabilitation programme in October, the voluntary sector featured prominently. Sixteen voluntary organisations were named in the successful partnerships for prime contracts and about 75 per cent of the 300 subcontractors included in the winning bids were not-for-profits.
Chris Grayling, the justice secretary at the time, hailed the programme for bringing together "the best of the public, private and voluntary sectors to set up our battle against reoffending. I am pleased that we will be deploying the skills of some of Britain's best rehabilitation charities to help these offenders turn their lives around."
Eight months on, the programme has begun, but there are doubts about the actual scale of the sector's involvement and whether the subcontracting issues that blighted the Work Programme are being repeated. One large charity in a prime partnership has withdrawn and many smaller voluntary organisations that expected to be involved have not yet been given any work.
The MoJ created Transforming Rehabilitation with the aim of reducing reoffending among the 45,000 short- sentence prisoners in England and Wales, almost 60 per cent of whom return to crime within 12 months of their release. The Offender Rehabilitation Act, which came into force in February, entitles anyone jailed for between a day and a year to receive at least 12 months of community supervision on release.
This enhanced level of support is being provided by 21 community rehabilitation companies, which have taken over the work of 35 probation trusts. However, a part of the public-sector National Probation Service has been retained for long-term offenders.
CRCs are expected to deliver resettlement services and manage offenders when they're released, for example by monitoring the level of risk they pose. Within each CRC area there are designated resettlement prisons that facilitate the transition back into the community. The MoJ hopes this support, before and after release, will deter people from returning to crime.
The programme is worth £2.25bn from 2015 to 2020 and appeared to be a good opportunity for the voluntary sector to earn income and play a part in reforming public services. Voluntary organisations were involved in 20 of the 21 partnerships that bid successfully for the prime contracts last year, but large private firms lead all but one of them (see "The prime contractors and their patches").
Sodexo Justice Services, a partnership between the facilities management company Sodexo, which employs 35,000 staff, and the crime-reduction charity Nacro, won six contracts. Purple Futures, a partnership led by the support services company Interserve, which has a global workforce of 85,000, and including the social enterprise 3SC and the charities Addaction, P3 and Shelter, won five.
Achieving Real Change in Communities, which was awarded the Durham Tees Valley contract, was the only partnership consisting only of not-for-profit organisations to win a prime contract. Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said at the time the contracts were announced that the big winners were "large private companies run for profit".
In April the drug and alcohol misuse charity Addaction withdrew from Purple Futures. In a statement, it said this was "due to a failure to agree the detail of subcontracting arrangements". It declined to discuss the matter for this article. Sources say that the charity found the payment being offered for its work to be insufficient.
Clive Martin, director of Clinks, an umbrella group for charities that support offenders, says the sector's involvement appears to have been oversold. "This was paraded as a big opportunity for the voluntary sector to transform services, and the sector bought into it," he says. "It begs questions about the future of the sector in public service reform and the use of charitable money to bid for it."
Martin wants greater funding transparency and also expresses concern about the reluctance of charities to speak out about the programme for fear of upsetting prime providers. "That doesn't bode well for the sector's role in advocacy," he says.
Clinks and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations began monitoring the sector's involvement in Transforming Rehabilitation in May in order to get some accurate data. Nick Davies, public services manager at the NCVO, says this will lead to the creation of a special interest group to represent subcontractors, similar to the one the NCVO created for the Work Programme. "This is a very large flagship programme and all eyes will be on it to see if it becomes a successful model," he says.
Davies is encouraged by the greater emphasis on fixed-fee payments than on payment by results. The NCVO has accused private firms in the Work Programme of "creaming off" easier clients and "parking" the remainder with the voluntary sector.
But in TR there is widespread anger among subcontractors who have yet to receive any work, let alone payments. One chief executive, who does not wish to be named, was informed last year that her organisation would be involved, only to be told five months later that its services might not be required until some time in the future.
"It's ridiculous," she says. "The government rhetoric about the voluntary sector being involved is a load of rubbish. We and many like us were totally hijacked last year into engaging with the TR roadshow, which involved many meetings all over the place and taking time to engage with the possible primes. They required much paperwork.
"Meanwhile, other large mainstream funders seem reluctant to risk supporting small criminal justice system organisations involved in TR, either because they fear they will not survive it or they do not want to fund activity that is contributing to a large private sector organisation's profits, or activity that is seen to be mainstream statutory activity."
Another chief executive of a small charity, speaking anonymously, says it has received no work yet, despite assurances. "Our experience has been appalling," she says. "I feel extremely let down. All the messages were that local organisations were key to the delivery model."
Matt Wall, national secretary of the Community Chaplaincy Association, says the transition from a publicly run probation service has caused massive upheaval and consequently "charities have fallen down the list of priorities".
Wall estimates that between five and 10 of his organisation's 21 members that provide prison projects are in contract talks, but adds that urgency is needed. "Small charities don't have many reserves and, if they have to wait another three to six months for funding, it could cause significant strain," he says.
Wall also fears that some traditional funders, such as local authorities and trusts and foundations, will withdraw support because they mistakenly believe the CRCs cater for all services related to criminal justice, and he is anxious about the bureaucracy associated with offering enhanced support to 45,000 people, however laudable the goal. "I hope it doesn't lead to a universal, mechanistic support for everyone," he says.
Tania Bassett, national officer for the probation service union NAPO, says Transforming Rehabilitation could turn into a "bureaucratic process that creates paperwork for officers but doesn't do anything to reduce reoffending". She says large charities that partnered with large companies were complicit in the privatisation of the probation service. Small charities, she says, "were being duped by the MoJ and won't get the involvement they were promised".
Meanwhile, the spectre of the Work Programme, which was widely condemned for contracts that loaded risk onto charity subcontractors, looms large.
Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, says: "There are concerns that it's the Work Programme all over again – but it's potentially more complicated because it's more difficult to measure people desisting from crime than getting into work."
Some CRCs are said to be working better than others. Helen Attewell, chief executive of Nepacs, which helps prisoners in north-east England, says it has had contrasting experiences with its two primes: Achieving Real Change in Communities, which won the Durham Tees Valley contract, and Sodexo, which leads the Northumbria contract. Attewell says that because ARCC is a voluntary sector organisation and is used to working in partnership with charities "it feels like a more organic relationship". The relationship with Sodexo, she says, hasn't been as smooth, but she adds: "The problem is not Sodexo. It's the legislation. Providers are scrabbling to do the best they can in a timescale that's too short."
Companies and charities that run primes are reluctant to discuss their experiences. A spokesman for Interserve says it does not want to comment at such an early stage. Sodexo is consulting unions on plans to reduce staffing levels and a spokesman says it is reluctant to discuss matters while this is going on.
A spokeswoman for Nacro, the charity partnered with Sodexo in six CRCs, says it is too early to tell how things are working. "We should know more in six to 12 months," she says. Mark Simms, chief executive of the social exclusion charity P3, which is also part of Purple Futures, acknowledges it has been hard work so far.
"The private sector has had to learn to understand the voluntary sector, and we have had to learn to understand the commercial world, but the relationship is solid and based on absolute honesty," says Simms, whose charity has taken on 60 staff to provide services. "You don't get a brand new service one day and 100 per cent change the next. I understand the frustrations, but we have to get this right."
An MoJ spokesman says: "Working with the voluntary, third and private sectors, we are helping offenders to turn away from crime. The reforms also ensure those sentenced to less than 12 months receive support on release for the first time in recent history."
CASE STUDY: PACT
Pact, the prison advice and care trust, was named as a subcontractor in 14 CRCs at the preferred bidder stage. Its chief executive, Andy Keen-Downs (right), says no contracts have materialised yet, but it hopes to finalise three or four in the next two months.
"We invested heavily to be ready for contracts," he says. "It's not great for our budget-setting, but we expect things to happen in the next few months."
Keen-Downs says the complexity of remodelling a probation service that still retains a public sector element has caused all manner of problems.
"There have been some Kafka-esque situations," he says. "There have been stories of the probation service and CRCs falling out over who owns buildings and in some cases dividing them in half, like in Steptoe and Son."
He says some prime contractors have found the MOJ's Industry Standard Partnering Agreement, which promotes subcontracting fair practice, to be "cumbersome", putting them off engaging with charities. Charities, he adds, are unhappy about prime providers inserting clauses that say they own and can license the intellectual property of services.
"There's no way we are going to agree to that," says Keen-Downs, who fears it could lead to companies eventually hiring their own staff instead of using charity subcontractors.
"This was about transforming services, and we have yet to see it happen. We haven't given up on it. We think there is real potential for the sector to deliver fantastic solutions to reduce reoffending. But it could end up as a repeat of the Work Programme."
CASE STUDY: ST GILES TRUST
The trust, which helps prisoners to prepare for life after release, has a 5 per cent equity stake in the Reducing Reoffending Partnership led by Ingeus UK. It is expanding its peer advice project, which trains prisoners to a City and Guilds level 3 qualification in advice and guidance so they can help other prisoners prepare for employment when they're released.
Rob Owen (pictured), chief executive of the St Giles Trust, says the new contracts are worth £2.3m a year and account for about 29 per cent of the charity's turnover. The trust is paid entirely by fixed fees 20 days after invoicing and is expanding a successful model so there is zero risk, he adds. There have been some "teething problems", but the programme is working well and there is a good relationship with Ingeus.
"I've been refreshingly impressed by its commitment to delivering something innovative, radical and caring," he says. "We shied away from working with one or two other primes because they didn't put enough commitment or resources into delivering a quality service. We didn't go into the Work Programme either, because we didn't think it was the right thing for our clients. This time we have a unique offering."