Transforming Rehabilitation

Ruth Breidenbach-Roe was part of the the Public Services and Partnerships team but has now left NCVO. Her blog posts have been archived here for reference.

Yesterday, the Ministry of Justice released its consultation ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ which sets out proposals to reform rehabilitation services. It plans to open up the majority of current probation services to private companies and voluntary sector organisations on a payment by results basis with an emphasis on preventing reoffending. Only prison leavers who are assessed as being ‘high risk’ will remain directly within the responsibility of the public sector probation service.

The efforts from the government to consult widely on this are welcomed, particular given its scale and implications, and NCVO will be formulating our response over the next few weeks. We believe that the voluntary sector has an important role throughout the commissioning process, in designing and delivering innovative and effective public services, and our response to this consultation will reflect this. Here, I want to pick out some of the key issues and concerns that we will be thinking about, particularly around the implications of a payment-by-results model of delivery.

The consultation recognises the “significant expertise and dynamism of many VCS providers [in rehabilitation]” stressing that this expertise “must be preserved within the system.” In numerous interviews over the past few months, Chris Grayling has praised the initiative of using ex-prisoners as mentors—a practice that many criminal justice charities pursue to great effect. (See the work of St Giles Trust and Catch 22 in the Peer Mentoring Scheme for example.)

However, one cannot help but recall the Work Programme, the government’s last significant public service reform. Despite much talk about the role of charities in providing specialist support for the long term unemployed, the reality is that the voluntary sector was squeezed out by large commercial providers. Even the larger charities found themselves unable to compete against the private sector giants.

The need to make savings is a significant driver behind the proposed reforms. This becomes greater still as the programme intends to extend support to a new population: those serving sentences of less than 12 months. Though a welcome and necessary move, this added outcomes burden within the same budget will have a significant impact. You have to wonder where such savings be squeezed from? Will contracts be awarded to providers that can offer the cheapest deal to government and have the financial capacity to bear the associated risks?

It’s also important to note that while we may speak of improving the whole system, a payment by results model puts risk and savings pressures squarely on the shoulders of providers, and off the state balance sheet. The appeal is that the state should no longer pay for ‘failure’. Rightly so: but ‘failure’ is subjective, to varying extents exists outside the control of the provider, and is often an inevitable part of complex individual journeys to rehabilitation.

The consultation envisages partnerships between charities, or charities and private organisations, as coming forward to bid for contracts. It notes that social investment will be important in facilitating this and as such the government will “continue to engage with the social investment market to ensure that the contracting process is compatible with this kind of financing.” If this commitment comes true, it would help to ensure the skills and expertise of charities can be central in rehabilitation services.

The consultation also seeks input on how the government can ensure “that lead providers manage and maintain a truly diverse supply chain in a fair, sustainable and transparent manner”. This certainly needs addressing— particularly if a sub-contracting model, with private companies as primes, dominates (a pessimistic prediction perhaps). Evidence of this being an effective model of delivery in welfare services is limited, however well it might work in contracting systems for goods (ie highways and IT).

The consultation seeks contributions on how pricing structures can “incentivise providers to work with all offenders including the most prolific.” This is a really important point to address. Concerns around cherry-picking (where providers work with the easiest to help, but leave the hardest to reach continually out of reach) are closely associated with payment-by-results and the right payment mechanisms need to be put in place to ensure this doesn’t happen. NCVO will shortly be publishing detailed explanation of how costing models in PBR work to incentive and/or penalise VCS providers and potential investors.

This consultation is an important opportunity to raise many of these concerns, and to discuss how a diverse market, where the skills and expertise of charities are fully used, can be facilitated. The government should listen closely to the contributions from all sectors to ensure this.

NCVO welcomes any comments (please contact me on or 020 7520 2422) and is using the PBR Working Group to hold conversations with a range of stakeholders, including the private sector. Whatever happens as a result of this consultation, we need the final programme to deliver the best outcomes possible.

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