This blog summarises key information on how future services under the reformed probation model will be commissioned, and how these plans may affect voluntary organisations and their service users. The information comes from a recent meeting of the Reducing Reoffending Third Sector Advisory Group special interest group on probation (RR3 probation SIG). For full notes from the meeting see here.
How will probation services be commissioned in the future?
The competition for day-one services under the reformed probation model has been conducted centrally by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) through the Dynamic Framework. As the reunified probation service comes into place from June 2021, responsibility for commissioning services will lie with the Regional Probation Director (RPD) appointed in each National Probation Service (NPS) region.
Each RPD will be tasked with establishing a Regional Reducing Reoffending Plan, a public document that sets out a three year vision for each region. RPDs are expected to complete their Regional Reducing Reoffending Plans by April 2021. Annual business plans will also be published to underpin these. The plans will help identify need in each area, and will inform RPD commissioning decisions. The Dynamic Framework will be used in all cases where RPDs directly commission services, though the procurement route of a partner agency may be used when co-commissioning takes place.
Each regional probation area has allocated funding for core sentence delivery services (i.e. services for which competitions are currently running, and the Finance, Benefits and Debt, and Dependency and Recovery service categories). There is no assigned budget however for other service categories, (i.e. black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME)* services, Restorative Justice and Cognitive and Behavioural Change), although there may be a regional budget for local service user involvement. The Regional Outcomes and Innovations Fund (ROIF) is available as an additional source of funding for non-enforceable activity, though subject to spending review, this will take some years before it ramps up to £20m in 2024-5 across England and Wales.
There is no procurement timetable nor pipeline, meaning that organisations that haven’t been able to engage in the competition for day-one services still have little sense of when further opportunities will come about. HMPPS has said it will provide as much notice as possible to potential bidders but there are no imminent plans to procure future services before summer 2021.
Concerns over gaps in key services
A lack of clarity over when some services will be funded has generated real concern about how a fully holistic probation service will be realised. For example, organisations have raised concerns over potential gaps of provision due to delays in the commissioning of Finance, Benefits and Debt support. The removal of this support in custody could lead to people being unable to address mortgage arrears or arrange payment holidays. It may also lead to people’s debt issues escalating, and difficulty in applying for bank accounts, ID and Universal Credit on release. The wider financial implications of Covid-19 are also likely to increase demand for these services in the community.
In many ways the reformed probation model has laudable aims to establish a more holistic service for people, aided by the emphasis on simpler structures and greater consistency of support from probation officers. Gaps in support will only undermine these aims however, and we have recommended that where gaps are present, HMPPS explores continuing current provision during the interim period.
A related concern is the delay in commissioning services under the BAME service category. There is no assigned budget or timescale for this service category, and a lack of clarity over how the specification will be developed. In November 2020, the VCS stewardship fund was launched by HMPPS to strengthen the capacity of BAME specialist voluntary organisations to be able to engage in probation commissioning. This funding has been distributed to Regional Probation Areas to support their engagement with BAME specialist organisations and Clinks has also received funds to provide capacity building support to BAME specialist organisations which we are delivering in partnership with Eastside Primetimers and BTEG. While this funding is hugely welcome, maximising its impact may be limited as opportunities for BAME-specialist organisations to actually deliver services under the reformed probation model may remain limited for some time, or in some areas not emerge at all.
Challenging contract culture
Guidance has been issued to RPDs, highlighting how they can identify need in their areas and how they can address those needs through commissioning. Though the guidance says that grants can be used, it suggests that commissioning through contracts should be the default route. It states, “when a specific service is being commissioned, a contract should be used so that there is clarity and accountability for the service which is required.”
In our feedback to HMPPS on this guidance, we have asked for this to be looked at again and further detail provided of what is defined as a ‘specific service’, as we are extremely concerned that this will result in little use of grant funding, to the detriment of small and specialist voluntary organisations. We have recommended that in order to prevent contracts being used as default, the guidance should also include information about why grants are better suited to funding voluntary sector services. We have also offered to provide further information that would support RPDs to better understand the financial make-up of the sector and the challenges that contracts present to the vast majority of small and specialist organisations.
Learning from the commissioning of day-one services
Clinks has been repeatedly told by voluntary sector organisations that the procurement process for day-one services is complex, resource-intensive and draining. Many voluntary organisations have only just completed these processes and others, due to delays in competition outcomes and the need to re-run competitions in some areas, are still very much in the middle of this.
We also know that many small organisations struggled to qualify onto the Dynamic Framework at all. Given the centrality of the Dynamic Framework for future commissioning, there is a need for processes to be simplified for organisations of all sizes. Both the voluntary sector and HMPPS have learned a lot from these challenges, and Clinks will harness this learning to support HMPPS to improve future processes. The Dynamic Framework will exist for at least seven years, and so there will be an ongoing need to use this learning to continue to develop, improve and simplify it over that time.
*We acknowledge that the term BAME can be problematic as it refers to a group of people who are far from homogenous. The intersection of race, ethnicity, faith, and culture makes social identities multi-faceted and shifting – the experiences of individuals within these groups will vary. Wherever possible, we seek to be specific when describing groups of people but at times use the term BAME – albeit reluctantly – to describe inequality and discrimination across groups when necessary.