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A new theory of justice?

By Alex Van Vliet 9 May 2013 3 minute read

In a move that the late John Rawls would no doubt find satisfying, the veil of ignorance has been lifted and we are privy to Chris Grayling’s plans for the future of offender rehabilitation. For those of us who have followed the minister’s signals, there is little new in the announcements made this morning—the proposals closely resemble the principles set out in the Ministry of Justice’s Transforming Rehabilitation consultation earlier this year.

70% of rehabilitation services currently delivered by the Probation Service will be contracted out on a payment by results basis to the private and voluntary sector—the public sector will be barred from competing for delivering these services. Offenders released from short-term custodial sentences—the group with the highest rates of recidivism—will now have a mandatory 12 months of supervision.

In response to a query on the role of the voluntary sector in the delivery of rehabilitation services, Mr Grayling reaffirmed this morning that ‘quality will rise to the top’. Central to meeting this aim will be ensuring commissioning decisions are based on clear and robust evidence of effectiveness in reducing reoffending. I have no doubt that the Ministry has been diligent in the six months developing these proposals, but it is hard not to conclude that more thorough piloting of the payment by results approach would have been welcome as good policy-making practice. NPC hopes that the recently-announced What Works evidence centres and the Justice Data Lab will play a role in judging seeing an end to piecemeal and ineffective interventions, as well as lessons learnt from the Work Programme.

What is not clear, however, is if the financial barriers to competing on a level playing field have been mitigated for the voluntary sector. NPC’s response to the Ministry’s consultation highlighted the risks for charities in the design and delivery of payment by results contracts.

While the expertise of many effective local charities working with offenders is not in doubt, the voluntary sector will face an uphill struggle in achieving the scale and financial clout to compete for the 21 contract areas announced today. Charities shouldn’t expect special treatment in competing for contracts, nor should they be guaranteed prime status as some in the sector have suggested. Contracts should go to those who will deliver the best possible service to beneficiaries, but we want to make sure that the system doesn’t freeze out good charities.

In practice, this will mean the tricky and time-consuming business of forming consortia, working in collaboration across sectors and committing to sharing resource, expertise and information. Later this month, NPC and G4S will host a roundtable to discuss how partnerships between the private and voluntary sector can lead to the greatest impact for beneficiaries. By fostering open and honest dialogue ahead of collaboration, we hope that the well-documented shortcomings of the Work Programme can be avoided.

Reoffending rates are one of the most stubborn social problems, and I welcome the chance for programmes that make a real difference to lives of offenders to have a clear voice in the future of rehabilitation services.