Interview: Jeremy Wright

The prisons minister expects 'significant' voluntary sector involvement in new contracts to run probation services for low and medium-risk ex-prisoners

Jeremy Wright
Jeremy Wright

Jeremy Wright, the minister for prisons and rehabilitation, says the government's probation services need to harness more of the skills of the voluntary sector. "There's often something distinctive that a voluntary sector organisation has to offer," he says. "If there are organisations with good ideas, we want them to be involved."

Wright is responsible for driving through substantial changes, announced earlier this month by the justice secretary, Chris Grayling. These changes will allow charities and private sector providers to bid for payment-by-results contracts to provide probation services for about 265,000 low and medium-risk ex-prisoners a year - contracts likely to be worth several hundred million pounds. Wright expects "significant" voluntary sector involvement in these contracts, although he will not set targets.

Many charities greeted the announcement of the new scheme with caution, partly because of the problems the sector experienced with the Work Programme, the flagship payment-by-results employment initiative run by the Department for Work and Pensions. Despite early optimism, only two charities won prime contracts and many charitable subcontractors complained about their treatment by private sector primes. But Wright is adamant that his department will learn from previous schemes. "We aren't just going to pick up the Work Programme, change DWP to MoJ and transfer it directly," he says.

But there will be similarities, he admits, not least in the scale of contracts: "It's still in development how many contracts there will be. It's got to be big enough to make payment by results worthwhile." The contracts will be divided into areas: he suggests 16 as a starting point.

How will the programme be designed? Wright says this is the subject of consultation, which runs until 22 February, and no final decisions have been taken - he says he wants to hear from the sector how the government can structure contracts and services to ensure that voluntary sector organisations do not suffer disadvantage.

"If there's something in the way, let's get it out of the way," he says. "It wouldn't be right to say the solutions are ready to go, but we do at least recognise the problems."

He says that contracts must suit many different models, and he is interested in encouraging consortia working, engaging social finance and providing strong protection for subcontractors."The winner could be a voluntary sector organisation, a consortium of voluntary organisations, a private sector organisation, a mutual coming out of the public sector or a mix of models," he says. "We want structures that will help voluntary organisations join consortia. We want structures to help build partnerships."

If sector organisations do not have sufficient working capital, he says, there must be room for social finance providers to step in and help them find it. But he recognises that smaller charities are likely to be subcontractors, and he wants robust use of the Merlin contract standards, designed to make big companies have regard for smaller ones.

He says he also wants to avoid "creaming and parking" - the process of a prime contractor taking on all the most profitable cases and leaving the more difficult individuals with their subcontractors. One way to do this, he thinks, is to use a measure of success that makes the most difficult clients the most financially desirable.

A traditional model of measuring success is binary, he says, with no payment if someone reoffends. But this is not a good measure for prolific offenders: "It means that as soon as someone reoffends once, you won't get paid in full, so there's an incentive to ignore him."

The alternative is an incremental measure, which means that contractors are paid for reducing the number of offences someone commits. In this model, prolific offenders can become the most valuable clients - but Wright says this is more expensive to measure and more difficult to explain: "It's easier to say to the public that we pay out to stop people reoffending, rather than pay out because they offend less."

The new contracts will be subject to payment by results, which criminal justice charities have said they find particularly difficult. Wright says that part of a contract is likely to be paid up front, partly in recognition of the difficulties sector organisations might have in finding all the working capital they need and partly because they will be carrying out statutory duties, such as enforcing court orders and supervising people under licence.

Wright says he is keen to see expansion of certain services that are provided only by the voluntary sector, such as mentoring and meeting services. And he emphasises that he wants freedom for charities to do things their own way.

"We certainly don't want to say to people 'we will pay you by results and this is how you will do it'," he says. "But we will hold people to professional standards. You have to make sure that the orders of the court are followed."

CV:

2012: Minister for Prisons and Rehabilitation

2010: MP for Kenilworth and Southam; government whip

2007: Opposition whip; founder, All Party Parliamentary Group on Dementia

2005: MP for Rugby and Kenilworth; member, Constitutional Affairs Committee

1996: Barrister specialising in criminal law

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