In this article, originally published as a Clinks Guest Blog, I share my thoughts on the challenges that are emerging from the changing relationship between the voluntary sector and probation service provision. This is the first of two blogs – the second will look at how I see the voluntary sector responding.
What’s the role of charities and voluntary agencies in delivering ‘rehabilitation’ or probation services? That’s not an easy question to answer nowadays, particularly after all of the changes that have come about through Transforming Rehabilitation.
The short answer depends, to some extent, on what type of charity you’re thinking of. Clearly, the bigger service-orientated charities, such as St Giles Trust, Nacro and Catch 22, are playing a big role in contracting and partnering on a regional level to deliver probation and rehabilitation services. Yet what about the medium-sized and smaller charities – what role do they have? Many do fantastic work, on a local/regional level. Yet, in the public announcements about ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ providers, it was really just the bigger charities that featured. I get the sense that the smaller ones are gradually being included in sub-contracts, but it remains to be seen how much of a role they play. To varying degrees, I’d categorise this group as the ‘contracted’ voluntary sector.
But what about those charities that don’t compete to deliver government-funded services? Or, to put it another way, the ‘non-contracted’ voluntary sector. It doesn’t feel like there are too many around nowadays – there tends to be less focus from government, as they’re not delivering the states responsibilities for them, but there are more than most people would think, and that’s the category that Unlock is in. For us, we’re always trying to get the balance right between providing practical charitably-funded support to people with convictions, while also identifying issues and working at a policy level to try and resolve the problems people face due to their criminal record. We believe that this ‘twin-track’ approach, which has our ‘independent’ status at its heart, is critical in making sure we stay true to the issues that people with criminal records face.
So what does that mean for smaller charities that are not in contractual arrangements with probation providers?
I can only really relate to my experience at Unlock. Firstly, it’s worth bearing in mind that the majority of people we help are no longer in prison or on probation – they’re simply living their life, and have a criminal record. This makes sense when you consider there’s over 10 million people in the UK with a criminal record, and only around 250,000 people on probation.
Yet over recent years, we’ve seen a huge increase in the number of ‘referrals’ we receive from probation agencies in particular. I say ‘referrals’ as we’ve never actually promoted or agreed to take ‘formal referrals’ as might happen with other organisations – it’s not in the nature of our work. We’ve also seen huge increases in direct contact from probation agencies and employment advisors.
At Unlock, we’re principally funded by charitable trusts, foundations and donations. That makes our mandate fairly clear, as we’ve usually set out the work we want to do – either working at a practical level providing support, or working at a policy level to secure long-term changes – and then worked hard to secure the funding to do it.
So how does that work interact or overlap with probation service providers? I think that’s where the nature of the relationship has changed. Rather than recognising the ‘added-value’ that charities can provide, the embedding of charities as ‘core’ providers of services is having a knock-on effect for those that aren’t ‘providers’ in the same way. In other words, there’s an increasing expectation that charities “are funded to do this”, when they might not be. Certainly, the idea of probation services ‘referring’ clients to voluntary sector agencies, when there’s no formal arrangement in place, raises a number of questions. How can charities like Unlock work with probation providers given the current direction of travel? How can probation providers work with charities like Unlock?
I start from a position, organisationally, of mutual respect. It’s important to understand the role of probation services, and understand what is expected of them. Likewise, it’s important to understand the work of the voluntary sector, to be clear about what they’re able to offer, and to whom.
In my next blog, I’ll discuss how we’re trying to overcome some of these questions, so that as an organisation we can remain true to our values and principles, but that we’re able to work in a way which enables us to support providers of probation services, so that ultimately, people with convictions benefit.