Welcome back to our fortnightly excavation of Transformation Rehabilitation (TR) and the implications of the shifting commissioning arrangements for VCSE organisations and the service users that they support. In this blog, I raise some ideas and questions about what TR could mean for equalities groups and specialist service provision. The question of whether large-scale, prime-contractor commissioning can be reconciled with tailored, community-centred responses to individual need has been a persistent concern for Clinks and many of our smaller members in recent times.
What has been said about equalities so far?
Back in June 2013, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) launched an Equalities questionnaire, which was to feed into the development of the Rehabilitation Programme design and competition – you can read Clinks response here. Since then the Secretary of State, Chris Grayling, has been asked to produce an Equalities Impact Assessment for the Offender Rehabilitation Bill that accompanies the TR agenda. However, the Secretary of State’s response states that there are no current plans to publish one.
And while the Pre-Qualification Questionnaire for Tier 1 organisations requires bids to show that they understand and will respond to the needs of different groups of offenders, we still have no detail on what that actually means.
Meanwhile, there have been some encouraging signals on other fronts. The NOMS Commissioning Intentions from 2014 are explicit in acknowledging that data suggests that there are groups of ‘minority/historically disadvantaged’ people who may not be treated fairly by the CJS and NOMS aims to use the commissioning process to address those disparities in the future.
These statements chime with intelligence gleaned from the VCSE Sector over many years that there are some groups of service users who are escalated in the system more quickly than others with a similar offending profile or receive less appropriate rehabilitative and resettlement support.
So what do we know?
The term ‘minority group’ can really tell us everything and nothing about the CJS. An overwhelming proportion of service users within the criminal justice system experience vulnerability that is associated in some way with one or more of the protected characteristics (race, gender, disability, religion, age, gender identity, sexuality and pregnancy). In a sense, experience of inequality is ‘mainstream’ to the offender population. However, what so many VCSE organisations and the findings of desistance research demonstrate is that making a real difference requires tailored and specialised responses from providers, with a lot of experience supporting people in those groups, often helpfully rooted in the community.
It would be very unwise for any Tier 1 provider to regard equalities as an optional add-on to their daily business. Responding to specific needs and structural discrimination will be absolutely fundamental and core to the work of any Tier 1 organisation that seriously aims to reduce reoffending across the board. Indeed, we have heard some Tier 1s making noises about the commercial case for responding effectively. But the question is how to ensure that Tier 1 providers have the incentive, the strategic commitment and the tools to provide appropriate services for different equalities groups?
Putting equality at the heart
Here are some recommendations and questions that Clinks has made so far:
- High level contracts should specifically mention each one of the protected characteristics, not simply ‘people with protected characteristics’. Tier 1 organisations should be required to demonstrate evidence that they or their supply chains have experience and capacity to deliver services specifically for people with protected characteristics.
- Tier 1 organisations should be required to monitor and evaluate the profile of their service users in their contract package area and clearly demonstrate how they are meeting any specific needs that are identified. Procurement officials should afford significant weight to bids which begin to map out a concrete strategy and work plan for offenders with protected characteristics.
- Commissioners should be open to on-going strategic dialogue with service users, local community organisations and regional or national equalities organisations to inform the development of service specifications. Specialist organisations often perform a unique bridging role in engendering trust and confidence from service users who may have had very negative experiences in their previous engagement with a broad range of services.
Most critically, Clinks advocates the use of service user involvement to continuously review the quality and reach of services and to identify gaps. For example, in our 2011 Review, we found examples of good practice in prisons such as the use of older prisoner forums, which are often facilitated by an external organisation such as RECOOP.
How can we ensure fair treatment for service users in the criminal justice system and beyond?
We want to hear from you about the groups of service users that you work with and what the TR agenda means for them. Clinks has recently published a briefing on the raft of developments for women offenders. We are also concerned to ensure that other groups, such as service users with disabilities and older service users, receive adequate attention. Please add your comments and ideas below!
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The RR3 special interest group on Covid-19 will today convene voluntary sector leaders to discuss what is needed to mitigate the impacts of the virus on CJS voluntary organisations and the service users they support. We'll publish the key points from the discussion in a blog.