Opinion: Hot Issue - Should the voluntary sector take up the offer to bid to run prisons?

The National Offender Management Service has asked voluntary organisations to enter into competition with both the public and the private sectors to run correctional services, including prisons.

NO - JO GORDON, head of Voluntary Sector Unit, National Offender Management Service

NOMS will offer more opportunities for voluntary and community groups to provide services for offenders, contributing to direct service provision, developing innovative approaches and offering ways to tackle transition from prison to the outside world. This will include continuing to offer services in areas where voluntary groups are already active - employment, accommodation, education, suicide prevention, mentoring, support for those with mental health needs, debt counselling; and drug treatment. The introduction of offender management will mean a teamwork approach. All those involved with an offender need to work together to achieve the right outcome, each knowing what the overall plan is and their part in it. To be able to do this the voluntary sector will need support in building its capacity to prepare for competition.

NOMS offers the chance for greater partnership working and new partnerships between voluntary organisations themselves, and the voluntary sector and private and public sector providers. Voluntary groups are unlikely to run prisons on their own, but they might provide services for prisoners as part of a wider partnership.

YES - SHAUN WOODWARD, Labour MP, St Helens South

The voluntary and community sectors have a crucial role to play in society. Of course, these sectors should and must have a vital role in the prison service.

Already the voluntary sector makes a crucial contribution within the criminal justice system. Hundreds of volunteers and voluntary organisations work with offenders within the prison and probation services. The voluntary sector is often the most appropriate service because of its innate expertise.

When I first became involved with Childline, it was staffed purely by volunteers. Its professionalism came from the way it applied itself to the task. Today, the thousands of volunteers make a vital contribution to protecting children in Britain. It's inconceivable to think of child protection without Childline.

The same is true of our prison service. There is always something to learn. The problem with establishments is exactly that - they're establishments.

We can do prison better, we can do probation better and we can better the education for those who have ended up in jail.

We should never fear what we have to learn from the voluntary sector.

We should only ever be afraid of when we say we have nothing to learn.

So bring it on.

NO - JULIET LYON, director, Prison Reform Trust

The voluntary sector does have a vital role to play in the new National Offender Management Service, but running prisons is not it.

This Government is committed to rebalancing the criminal justice system and reserving prison as a place of last resort for serious and violent offenders. The voluntary sector can help to reduce prison numbers and create safer communities. Its strength lies in its ability to work at a local level, respond to the needs of diverse groups, involve service users and engender public trust and confidence. It can bid for, and run, accessible, innovative services for people who offend, ranging from preventative schemes through to support and supervision centres operating as alternatives to custody. It can work in the 'last resort' prisons to prepare people for resettlement and support them to take responsibility for their lives on release.

There is a risk that the introduction of marketplace values could drive voluntary organisations away. The voluntary sector is motivated not to profit from incarceration, but to achieve positive outcomes for those caught in a cycle of offending and for their families and their communities.

We need it more than ever.

NO - GODFREY ALLEN, chief executive, Apex Trust

Apex Trust believes running prisons is not a charitable endeavour; assisting prisoners and ex-offenders find appropriate employment, shelter and so on is. For decades the voluntary sector has been responsible for numerous developments in prison services - Apex developed the prison 'jobclub' and employer advocates. There will be scope for the development of improved approaches to the operation of our prisons, but only in long-term partnership with the sector. We cannot afford it otherwise.

The voluntary sector continues to be a major provider of services to prisons. This provision has often been based on poorly crafted contracts, which tend to undermine constructive partnerships and long-term planning.

Running an expensive entity such as a prison requires considerable investment capital, HR, legal and technical resources. A single prison has huge operating and investment requirements. In short, relatively small organisations cannot operate relatively big ones.

Growing the voluntary sector to prison bidding standards would require a government-funded capacity-building programme on an unprecedented scale. Will this happen?

Can pigs fly?

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