What is the Covid-19 Special Interest Group?
The voluntary sector working in the criminal justice system face unprecedented challenges in response to the Covid-19 outbreak, both in terms of safeguarding service users and staff in the short term, and ensuring the long-term existence and sustainability of our vital organisations.
The Reducing Reoffending Third Sector Advisory Group (RR3) has set up a Special Interest Group (SIG) on Covid-19, in order to formally channel policy suggestions to the government on how they can protect people in contact with the criminal justice system and their families, and ensure the future of the voluntary sector working in criminal justice.
The RR3 is a formal voluntary sector advisory group to the government, consisting of 16 senior voluntary sector leaders, which is chaired and coordinated by Clinks. The Covid-19 SIG is sponsored by Peter Dawson, Prison Reform Trust and Nicky Park, St Giles and consists of RR3 members, plus additional experts co-opted for their specialist expertise. The group meets weekly to make recommendations to the government.
This blog shares the key points that emerged from the latest meeting on 1st April 2020.
Key points from the latest meeting of the Covid-19 Special Interest Group
The meeting focussed largely on the way in which voluntary organisations can mobilise our expertise and capacity to support Her Majesty's Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) to respond to this crisis.
Prison visits have been suspended and the usual regime paused, HMPPS is facing staffing shortages, social distancing impacts the way in which people can access services in the community, and statutory services such as housing and welfare are facing unprecedented demand. In this context, voluntary organisations delivering services to people in contact with the criminal justice system face a multitude of challenges and are having to adapt to keep people safe.
The group set out a number of ways in which HMPPS and the voluntary sector could work together to deliver services, in new ways and to more people in this context. Recommendations included:
- Voluntary organisations have already adapted to the current context to provide services to people leaving prison over the phone or via video call. This vital support could be delivered on a much bigger scale and reach more service users, if the government provided the resource to do so and voluntary organisations had access to full information about who is being released from prison and to where.
- Information and wellbeing packs should be being provided at the gate to every person leaving prison. The voluntary sector can help inform these packs, by advising on what information and guidance people leaving prison need- for example, what social distancing means and how it applies to people attending probation meetings, and how statutory services like health services, Job Centres and Housing Options team have changed their operations in response to the crisis.
- In this extraordinary context people in the criminal justice system cannot access the services ordinarily available to them, or ask people for information they would usually go to. Voluntary organisations providing advice and information helplines are therefore facing dramatically increased demand. Therefore, HMPPS should provide additional funding to voluntary organisations providing advice and information services so they are able to respond to increased demand and give service users accurate information.
- The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and HMPPS should work with voluntary organisations, to utilise existing experts by experience forums in the sector, in order to receive fast feedback on the practicalities of policy proposals from people who know how the system works in practice.
The meeting also agreed that recommendations made in previous weeks by the group remain urgent and relevant. For example, voluntary organisations under any public sector contract or sub contract still need clear assurances that sensible and proportionate contract management will be exercised in these extreme circumstances. There is still a need for the government to reduce the prison population through early release to protect people in prison, staff and the public. And there is still a range of practical measures the government can take to ensure in this new and challenging context that people leaving prison have access to the technology, money, accommodation and health care they need to stay safe. The group have presented to officials a priority list of these recommendations and asked for an update on progress prior to each future meeting.
Clinks engages in ongoing discussions with officials at MoJ and HMPPS to reflect the key points of the RR3 meetings to officials, to push for the implementation of our recommendations and be responsive to the changing policy context. Members of the group have also met this week with officials to provide immediate feedback on specific policies being developed by the department.
What else Clinks is doing
This is an unsettling time for everyone and we know there is a lot of fast-changing information which can be overwhelming and difficult to navigate. Clinks and the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance have therefore produced a webpage which provides sector-specific information, signposts to helpful information from the wider voluntary sector, and answers some frequently asked questions. We'll also continue to provide updates as needed in our ebulletins, including Light Lunch, and on our Twitter accounts @Clinks_Tweets and @ArtsCJS.
We also have a mailbox - email@example.com - for voluntary organisations working in the criminal justice system who have concerns or questions regarding how Covid-19 will affect their operations or the information they should provide to service users. Organisations should direct queries to their local contact or contract managers where possible, and submit specific questions to the mailbox if you’re struggling to get them answered.
We’ve also conducted a survey to understand the impact of Covid-19 on voluntary organisations, the results of which have been channelled to the MoJ. We are working on the best way to feed this information back to the sector.