Plans to contract out probation services for low and medium-risk offenders to private companies and charities have been given a cautious welcome by sector representatives.
Chris Grayling, the justice secretary, today announced an overhaul of the probation service that could mean responsibility for the rehabilitation of 200,000 offenders is transferred to the voluntary and private sectors.
There will be a six-week consultation period on the proposals and successful bidders for probation contracts will be paid according to their results in cutting reoffending.
The Ministry of Justice said it would set aside £500,000 to help charities prepare bids for the contracts.
Commenting on the proposals, crime-reduction charity Nacro said the proposals could help charities to have more impact on offending, but warned that progress would be slow.
"We understand why the government wishes to base the payment for this new system on the delivery of positive results," said Graham Beech, strategic development director at Nacro. "But let’s not underestimate the challenge of getting offenders to stop, especially when we are seeking to do this, on scale, with high volumes of offenders over large geographical areas.
"Progress is often more of a zigzag than a straight line and it takes time, effort and dedication to turn things round."
The St Giles Trust, which provides peer-support services to offenders, said the proposals were a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity".
Rob Owen, chief executive of the Trust, said: "We would like to see an increased role for charities to be closely involved in shaping the future of criminal justice services."
Clinks, an umbrella body representing charities that work with offenders, broadly welcomed the proposals, but warned against repeating mistakes made in the government’s Work Programme.
"We must now ensure that the consultation period consolidates learning from the Work Programme and ensures that the voluntary sector is properly resourced to carry out this important work," said Clive Martin, its director. "This is important work underpinned by collaboration and equity across sectors, and we will need to ensure this happens."
Martin’s concerns about the Work Programme were echoed by Ben Kernighan, deputy chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. "Contracts must be accessible to smaller, local charities, most of which have been shut out by the very large scale of contracts and unrealistic requirements for the amount of capital providers must hold in the Work Programme," he said.
Ralph Michell, director of policy at the chief executives body Acevo, welcomed the plans but said "we should not fool ourselves that the road ahead will be easy".