Last week the Public Accounts Committee published its report into the ‘Transforming rehabilitation’ reforms to probation services. The report was critical of the slow pace of the reforms and of the worrying lack of progress in properly involving the third sector in the programme. Committee Chair Meg Hillier concluded that: 'Government may have cause to regret using the potent language of "revolution" for its Transforming Rehabilitation reforms.' 

Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) is the overarching title for the programme introduced by the Coalition Government in 2014 to ‘privatise’ probation services, replacing them with an expanded range of services being delivered by Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs), alongside a (public sector) National Probation Service to supervise the most serious offenders. On the whole the CRCs are led by large private sector companies as ‘prime contractors’, with an intended role for third sector organisations (TSOs), mostly as sub-contractors.

Coalition ministers were determined to bring down the high rate of reoffending, and it was partly for this reason that the government was at great pains to stress that third sector organisations – with their perceived skills and expertise – would have a substantial role in the programme. The ‘revolution’ that many observers hope for is the creation of a criminal justice system that leads to much more successful rehabilitation and reduces reoffending.

The Committee drew on evidence presented by the University of Birmingham’s Third Sector Research Centre (TSRC), with voluntary sector partners Clinks and the National Council for Voluntary Organizations (NCVO), whose ‘trackTR’ project has been monitoring the third sector's involvement in Transforming Rehabilitation, following concerns that charities have missed out in previous large-scale government contracts. The partners have been surveying TSOs on their experiences of this large-scale reform of offender rehabilitation services. The second in our series of reports 'Change & Challenge' was launched in May 2016 and its findings are quoted by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.

Revolution on hold

The Committee’s inquiry into the implementation of TR found that progress has been slow and the promised revolution has yet to be realised. Voluntary sector organisations, deemed central to the programme at the outset, are not being engaged effectively.

The Committee found that the measures to reduce reoffending and transform services, including for those people serving shorter sentences, were not having the intended results. Services were found to be varied and there were challenges in determining good outcomes because of issues relating to data and the protracted negotiations with the prime contractors.

The vulnerable voluntary sector?

Acknowledging the concerns expressed in our research, the Committee concluded that the reforms had not managed to open the probation system up to a wider group of providers, especially smaller voluntary sector organisations. They were clear that lessons needed to be learned from a narrowing of the market to a small number of private sector providers, excluding even the larger voluntary sector organisations from competing on a level playing field. This ‘squeezing out’, we suggest, potentially narrows the range of effective services available to the system, as well as the likelihood of innovation.

Third sector involvement in supply chains appears low: only one quarter of the 151 voluntary sector organisations that responded to our survey reported being funded through a CRC’s supply chain. The organisations in those supply chains are disproportionately larger voluntary sector organisations (with incomes of £5 million or more per year). Very few smaller or medium-sized organisations are represented.

The research also drew attention to the position of third sector organisations not currently in supply chains, who do vital work as part of local ‘ecosystems’ of rehabilitation, but who may be lost through the upheavals and funding contraction associated with TR.

Referring to the work tracking the development of TR, Chief Executive of Clinks Anne Fox said: 'We have heard the experience of over 300 voluntary organisations across England and Wales. We know that the involvement of voluntary organisations and the pace of transformation has been very slow. We believe that the very low involvement of the voluntary sector’s expertise and poor communication with the sector by those leading the new systems has hampered a revolution in our probation services.'

Third Sector Research Centre published The third sector delivering public services: Developments, innovations and challenges – the first in its series of books based on its programme of research in July this year. A chapter in the book by Rob Macmillan focuses on the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms as an instance of ‘market shaping and making’, drawing on cutting-edge debates in economic sociology.

You can follow #trackTR on Twitter.

Rob Macmillan, Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham

Twitter: @3rdSectorRC

James Rees

Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership, Open University

Twitter: @JamesRees_CVSL