‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ is the name given to the flagship changes in Probation, designed by the coalition Government. There are many concerning elements of these proposals but I write here about one small aspect and unrealistic expectations that the Ministry of Justice has for this huge change. I often refer to MPs and Ministers in my reflections on Governments policies and their approach towards communities and organisations such as charities. It is rare for Civil Servants to emerge into that spotlight, exceptions to this so far have included William Shawcross (Charities) and Louise Casey (‘troubled families’). This morning I am adding another name to the list, that of Antonio Romeo, the Director General of Criminal Justice. More information about Ms Romeo can be found on the MOJ website here. The rest of the MOJ website goes on to list the Governmental Ministers for the MOJ, it is almost unnecessary to point out that this 5 person team, is made up of 5 men, no female Ministers for the MOJ! The Senior Management team in which Antonio sits is made up of 10 Civil Servants of which five are women including the Permanent Secretary. However despite this diversity there is no evidence in the CVs of these Ministers or Senior Civil Servants that any of them has any experience in the Charitable Sector. The exception to this is Sue Street one of the two non executive board members. Sue Street is a Trustee of the Royal Opera House and the Royal Ballet. Both prestigious organisations but neither are candidates for working with the MOJ on these reforms.
Antonio Romeo spoke on Tuesday to a conference entitled “Third Sector Impact Measurement” when she announced that the Ministry of Justice wants credible bids from the sector to assist in the reforms. A brief report from this conference is available here. Ms Romeo went on to suggest that the government’s rehabilitation reforms will fail if none of the prime provider contracts are won by voluntary sector organisations. She said “We hope there are really credible bids from the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector to win tier-one contracts.” I have written previously about the failure by Central Government to understand the culture and capacity of the so called third sector (I confess I dislike it as a label). If they are wanting the sector to deliver services, they need to ensure that the procurement processes and the nature of the reforms take this into account from the beginning. What tends to happen is that Governments decide to make changes, and then rather than spending time working out how to best achieve this change, they rush from idea to solution far too quickly. This is a mixture of the time needed to implement change (the usual priority is to do things within electoral timetables, totally unsuited to sustainable change) and an overweening sense of confidence that being the Government they know what is best.
There is to my knowledge one third sector organisation that has the scale and skills to win one of these huge contracts. It is far from certain if they can do so alone, but the list of contenders is so small that even for this charity the task is huge. If I am right with my limited understanding, the MOJ with their huge resources need to apply the brakes now. Like Antonio Romeo I believe that the third sector is best placed to deliver some of the elements that probation provides for those leaving prison. Indeed at a small scale this already happens. The MOJ have been desperate to find a way of scaling up the local successes, but sadly rather than doing so in an effective manner (something that would take time!) they have instead gone for a top down approach, because that is what Governments like to do. I am sure that Antonio and her officers will ensure that at least one contract does go to a third sector organisation. I could name that charity now. However that is not the thousand flowers blooming that is implicit in Ms Romeos comments. As well as needing a broader range of skills and experience in our Government Ministers, we need to see more third sector experience in these senior management teams if future government reforms are to start to be really successful. We can be sure that the views and experience of G4S and SERCO make it to the right meetings. With the latest lobbying bill, the risk is that charities will be pushed even further away!