Richard Oldfield has published an independent review of the probation Dynamic Framework. This review was commissioned in January 2021 by the then Minister for Prisons and Probation, Lucy Frazer QC MP, and its commissioning was reconfirmed by her successor, Alex Chalk MP, in May 2021. Richard Oldfield is the founder and executive chairman of Oldfield Partners, an asset management firm, and is a trustee of the Prince’s Trust and Amber Foundation and a number of other charities. In this blog he discusses his review and its recommendations: that there should be a large-scale adoption of grants as the funding mechanism for some of the services; simplification of contracts; and a system which obliges large entities to include more specialised smaller organisations in their bids.
When she was Prisons and Probation Minister, Lucy Frazer requested me earlier this year to review the Dynamic Framework (DF) of the National Probation Service. The findings of this review were made public on 20th August 2021. Well into it, I spoke to the new responsible minister, Alex Chalk, and he admitted that he wondered who on earth I was to be doing this. Sir Simon Wessely, former President of the Royal Society of Psychiatrists, said on Desert Island Discs that he had been asked what his qualifications were for leading a particular review, and his answer was that he knew nothing about the subject and was therefore objective. I have the same qualification: I am not a procurement expert, and the DF is all about procurement.
I hope, though, that I have brought a reasonably commonsensical independent view. I have been interested in prisons since being High Sheriff of Kent in 2008-9. There were then ten prisons in Kent. Since then, I have been involved as supporter and trustee of charities involved in reducing reoffending.
It quickly became apparent, in the course of this review, that the DF has a contradiction at its heart. A policy objective is to involve small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and voluntary sector organisations (the latter generally medium-sized or small) both for value for money reasons and because there are so many of them offering local, highly specialised, often very personal services which are likely to be the most effective in achieving the ultimate objective of reducing reoffending. But the design and processes of the DF are full of obstacles to the involvement of SMEs and voluntary sector organisations. Procurement – providing taxpayers’ money to non-government entities – necessarily involves some careful, responsible, even cumbersome, procedures; but they need to be calibrated so as not to undermine the objectives they are intended to serve.
There is a big gap between the internal - Ministry of Justice (MoJ) - and the external perceptions of the DF. In its Day 1 awards, the DF has not yet achieved the wide participation of medium-sized and small voluntary and private sector organisations which was part of its objective. It needs modifying. The main recommendations of my review are that there should be a large-scale adoption of grants as the funding mechanism for some of the services; radical simplification of contracts; and a system which obliges large entities to include the more specialised smaller ones in their bids.
Grants are not a panacea. Several of those whom I interviewed said that grants could be just as complicated as contracts – or, to put it the other way round, contracts could be just as simple as grants. Contracts could certainly have less demanding financial criteria, and a simpler evaluation process. The present contract template is designed for contracts of more than £20 million, but none of the DF awards gets anywhere near this figure or is likely to.
The MoJ is already working on simplifying contracts. However, I would not expect the contract procedure to become drastically less cumbersome. The point about using grants as the default option is that this entirely different approach means a change of mindset, potentially with greater emphasis on what the recipient organisation is doing with the money and less emphasis on the possibility of legal challenge by discontented bidders, a fear which permeates government procurement processes. Away from the DF, the MoJ is used to grant-making; there is no reason that grants could not be used much more widely. If grants are a major part of the DF, the MoJ will need to transfer some of its resources from contracts to grants.
I have not gone the whole hog and recommended nothing but grants. One of the welcome aspects of the reform of the probation service is the appointment of Regional Probation Directors, and each of these needs to be empowered to take decisions about which organisations to work with and in what form; but they should know that (if the review recommendations are implemented) going the grant route is thoroughly encouraged rather than, as it is at the moment, discouraged.
There may well be areas, such as education, training and employment (or parts thereof) which are more suited to contracts because they are – generalising hugely – more about delivery of a timetabled and assessable course rather than about strongly personal relationships. There are other areas – especially personal well-being, finance, debt and benefits, dependency and recovery, much of women’s services – which seem well suited to grants, often to smaller voluntary sector organisations where the personal relationships are the key - the spark of motivation which an inspiring individual is able to create in someone, and which helps to lead that person to take a better and happier path.
Reducing reoffending is famously difficult and Britain is famously bad at it. The DF can play a vital role. If the DF were responsible for a reduction of ½% in reoffending, it would pay for itself. My review’s recommendations have two goals: first, to maximise the potential for medium-sized and small voluntary sector organisations as well as private sector companies and large voluntary sector organisations to be a real partner to the MoJ in reducing reoffending; second, to maximise the amount of money within the probation service which is available for delivery of service. The DF, with increased funding for rehabilitation and resettlement, gives an opportunity to make an impact on Britain’s reoffending figures, much of which could be lost by what the 2020 government green paper on procurement calls “complicated and stifling rules”. I believe that a move to much greater use of grants will help to enable the opportunity to be grasped.
The Director General of Probation, Amy Rees has responded to Richard Oldfield’s review in a letter to Clinks’ Acting Co-Chief Executive and Director of Influence and Communications Jess Mullen. Read the letter here