Most small and medium-sized voluntary sector organisations are focused on direct service delivery, and it can be difficult to find the time to keep up to speed with new developments or step back from the crucial day-to-day frontline work to see the bigger picture and context in which you are working. Clinks has launched regional policy forums which we hope will provide an opportunity to do just that, along with improving access to decision makers and allowing time for all-important networking.
The forums will give organisations based outside London the opportunity to hear the latest national developments in criminal justice, and also use their experience to inform Clinks’ national policy work. They are currently being held in the areas where Clinks has resources for local support, which are the South West, North East and North West. In this blog I’ll share what took place at the first series of forums, with a particular focus on the Exeter forum which I organised as Development Officer for the South West.
A seismic change in the political landscape
These first policy forums, held in Durham, Liverpool and Exeter, all had a focus on prisons, with senior prison staff speaking, along with voluntary sector organisations.
The morning of the events started with an update from Clinks’ policy team giving an overview of the seismic change in the political landscape. For me at the Exeter forum it was useful to take a step back and reflect on the sheer amount of recent change and future uncertainty, starting with Minister Chris Grayling’s reforms which are of course still bedding in. Then followed Michael Gove’s brief period at the helm introducing a different approach and five reviews into different aspects of the Criminal Justice System. Swiftly followed of course by the political earthquake that was the EU referendum, a new government and an entirely new ministerial team headed by Liz Truss. We then heard an overview of the prison reform white paper and the ten new strategies that will accompany it, on everything from new builds and employment to staff corruption and women.
Straight from the horse’s mouth
We then heard ‘from the horse’s mouth’ what all this means in practice for prisons, with presentations from Ian Blakeman, Executive Governor of the Teeside reform prisons (watch a video about them here), Mark Greenhaf, Deputy Governor of HMP Berwyn in Wales, and Bridie Oakes-Richards, Governor of HMP Dartmoor. At the Exeter forum delegates particularly appreciated Bridie Oakes-Richard’s honest account of the challenges currently facing prisons and reflections on how plans for prison governor autonomy might happen (likely to be very slow to implement). She also shared really interesting work being done at HMP Dartmoor such as how they have become an integrated prison (sex offenders and non-sex offenders), becoming smoke free and embedding conflict resolution in the prison. She ended by talking about the importance of partnerships with the voluntary sector, and saying that although she does not have any funding to offer, she will support voluntary sector organisations in any other way possible including partnership work because prisons need their expertise.
Perspectives on key policy issues
The forums also heard from various Clinks members giving their perspective on key policy issues and how they influence local practice. Isabel Owens from North Tyneside Age UK spoke about successes they have had increasing the level of support for older people who have offended in Northumberland. In Liverpool, Nikki Guy from Stockport Women’s Centre shared her experience of developing an alliance to work together on a whole system approach for women in the Criminal Justice System. In Exeter we heard from Jayne Zito of CASS+ about her experience sitting on local strategic boards such as the Local Criminal Justice Board (LCJB) and community safety partnership – what decisions they make, who sits on them, what issues are coming up and how you can influence what they are doing. Jayne is currently working with the LCJB to consult the voluntary sector on a pilot of virtual courts, and welcomes input on that or any other issues local voluntary sector organisations would like to raise.
Delegates at the forums also discussed the key issues affecting them at present, and reflected on what support might help them to address them. Key challenges include:
- Staff shortages in prisons and Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) making it hard to work with them and increasing the impact on the voluntary sector.
- Barriers facing organisations in rural areas including cost of travel.
- Knowing who to go to if you want to work in prison. Access to prison for workers with lived experience is very complex.
- Funding from trusts and foundations is getting harder to access, and contracts are too big for small and medium voluntary sector organisations.
- Differences and conflicts between local and regional policy approaches.
In terms of support from Clinks and future policy forum events, delegates raised the following issues and ideas: devolution, mental health/dual diagnosis, thematic events to bring the voluntary and statutory sectors together to collaborate, and CRCs invited to future forums.
The next series of policy forums will take place in February/March and will have a focus on probation.
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