We’ve just launched our seventh state of the sector report which delves into the experience of voluntary sector organisations working in criminal justice. Our continued research in this area has enabled us to build up a detailed picture of the trends in this unique sector.
This work gives Clinks the opportunity to celebrate your successes, but it also highlights the challenges you and your service users are up against and just how ingrained those barriers are.
This year’s report is partly based on 245 survey responses – our highest response rate yet! So a massive thank you to all those who took part. Your responses have given us such a rich source of information without which this report would not be possible. When combined with the financial analysis of over 1,400 charities, it marks the most detailed information we have to date on the state of the voluntary sector in criminal justice.
So what challenges did our research uncover this year?
People’s basic needs are still not being met
In last year’s report, we found that people’s basic needs were no longer being met. We found people were being pushed into poverty by welfare reform, a lack of housing and a lack of resources in the community. Whilst not surprising, it is deeply saddening that a year later we must report the same thing. For the third consecutive year, we find that the numbers of service users are rising and that their needs continue to grow more complex and urgent.
Why does this continue to happen? Organisations once again told us about the damaging impact of welfare reform (particularly Universal Credit) and a severe housing crisis. This is leaving increasing numbers of people who have been in contact with the criminal justice system – especially those being released from prison – in situations where they cannot afford a basic standard of living and have nowhere safe to live. This is a damaging indictment of the system – it is setting people up to fail. This situation is not conducive to people's desistance journeys and is undoubtedly putting pressure on voluntary organisations.
“Issues with claiming benefits, delays in payments and sanctions have all resulted in a greater number of people in poverty.” – Survey respondent
“For the young men we support through-the-gate, housing needs, in particular, have become more urgent, with a growing number released homeless and unable to find temporary housing.” – Survey respondent
Organisations also spoke passionately about the effects of the crisis in prisons and the wellbeing of prisoners. Rising levels of violence, self-harm, poor conditions and a lack of resources are impacting the delivery of voluntary sector services in prison. This creates challenges around communication and getting access to prisoners to be able to deliver services. It also means more prisoners are accessing the sector’s services with greater mental health needs. There is concern that this situation could worsen as we face a projected increase in the prison population. Bolder action is needed – policy change designed to address basic needs is not keeping pace.
“[People are] more traumatised from their experiences within prison.” – Survey respondent
It is humbling and inspiring to see how committed organisations are to meeting the rising need and supporting as many people as possible. Indeed, despite serious funding challenges, very few organisations are reducing their services or narrowing service criteria. Organisations are working tirelessly to plug gaps in support where they can and finding flexible ways to adapt like increasing partnership working with one another. However, staff are having to take on bigger caseloads, putting inevitable pressure on them.
“Funding cuts and limited support service, have increased the amount of women attending in crisis.” – Survey respondent
The challenges of securing grants and recovering costs on contracts
The research we have conducted over the years highlights the unique circumstances of the voluntary sector in criminal justice.
This is a sector that is reliant on grant funding. The smaller the organisation the more reliant they are on grants. The financial analysis shows that specialist criminal justice charities are typically smaller than non-criminal justice specialists. This may not be surprising for readers but it does give us cause for concern. Government funding makes up the largest source of income for the sector yet grant funding from the government continues to decline. This has serious implications for the viability of small, specialist organisations.
“Being a very small organisation it is difficult to see through tough spells where there is no income” – Survey respondent
We have also found a new trend emerging. As grant funding decreases, organisations are increasing the proportion of funding coming from fees for services (such as social enterprise activity). Whilst, on the one hand, it’s reassuring to see the sector’s resilience in a challenging funding environment, it also raises questions about the position organisations are being put into. We are concerned the current funding environment is pushing organisations into more commercial models than they would otherwise choose and into competitive approaches that pit them against each other in unhelpful ways.
On the other hand, those that are delivering under contract or sub-contract are struggling to achieve full cost-recovery and being forced to cut overhead costs and subsidise contracts from other sources of funding and their reserves. This is unsustainable for organisations. It is especially concerning as criminal justice organisations have far fewer reserves on average than the UK voluntary sector as a whole – a sign of greater vulnerability.
“[There is] pressure to deliver good quality services on low competitive budgets.” – Survey respondent
Considering our findings about funding alongside those about people’s needs, it’s clear that organisations are working to meet the increasing demand for their services with fewer resources, or at least facing greater difficulty to secure them.
To say there has been political turbulence of late feels somewhat of an understatement. It has created an uncertain policy environment while we also face major changes with implications for the voluntary sector – for example reforms to probation services.
The knowledge this year’s research has given us about the health of the sector, the needs of organisations and their strengths, put us in a better position to advocate for the voluntary sector and support organisations through these changes.
We will continue to support the sector to tackle the challenges identified in our report, so that through all of this turbulence they don’t fall off the agenda and so that the sector can remain as resilient and as vibrant as ever.
Click here to read the full report and find out more about the sector’s service delivery, workforce and funding.