Clinks has launched a report which presents the evidence we have collected over the course of the pandemic about the impact of Covid-19 on the voluntary sector working in the criminal justice system.
It shines a spotlight on the unprecedented barriers that organisations have faced adapting their service delivery; the effect of the pandemic on the people they support, their staff and volunteers; and the financial pressures the pandemic has created.
The report also looks to the future and the opportunity we have in recovering from the pandemic to create a fairer, more effective criminal justice system by addressing the longstanding, systemic problems it faces and by changing the way people within the system are treated.
We gathered this information through surveys; numerous events reaching hundreds of organisations; a dedicated mailbox for the voluntary sector’s questions and concerns about the impact of Covid-19 on their operations; and the Reducing Reoffending Third Sector Advisory Group (RR3) - an advisory group to the government chaired by Clinks - which set up a special interest group on Covid-19 and has met regularly throughout the pandemic.
What do we know?
Our greatest concern is that an overwhelming majority of organisations told us that as a result of the pandemic the needs of people in the criminal justice system have increased. This is after three years of our State of the sector research finding that the needs of service users had already been growing increasingly more urgent and complex.
With the impact of Covid-19 on poverty, disadvantage and people's health and wellbeing, the vital services provided by the voluntary sector working in the criminal justice system have never been more needed. But this comes at a time when the sector’s capacity, ability to deliver services and financial stability is being tested to the extreme.
Organisations are resilient and rising to the challenge. We found that most organisations implemented remote services so that they could continue to work to at least some extent throughout the pandemic.
This commitment is something we want to celebrate. However, whilst organisations have been highly innovative and flexible there is a limit to how much their diverse services can be replicated remotely or adjusted to Covid-19 restrictions. This is especially the case for those that usually work in prisons, due to difficulty created by their closed nature and digital barriers. As a result of these factors, we’ve seen an overall reduction in service provision across the sector.
Volunteer numbers have decreased creating capacity issues and concern about long-term volunteer retention. The journey for staff has also been difficult as they have had to adapt to new ways of working whilst facing additional pressures, isolation, anxiety and personal impacts of the pandemic. Staff and volunteers are the vital backbone of this sector and ensuring their wellbeing will only grow more important the longer the pandemic continues.
On top of this, the pandemic has created acute financial difficulty for these organisations. Income streams have been disrupted and organisations are having to use their already limited reserves to sustain themselves.
Organisations have had to stop – or at least reduce – their social enterprises and trading arms. The longer the pandemic stretches on, those delivering under contract or sub-contract face growing uncertainty about the impact on their contracts with limited capacity to engage in new commissioning processes. Others have struggled with a lack of opportunity for new grants.
All the while, organisations have struggled to access financial support available from the government - support which has primarily been designed with businesses in mind and, because businesses operate very differently, the criteria has often excluded charities.
Accessing emergency grant funding from the government has been similarly challenging. The Ministry of Justice was unsuccessful in its bid for funds to support voluntary organisations working with people in contact with the criminal justice system from the government's £750 million pledged to support charities. We were pleased that Her Majesty's Prison and Probation Service were able to go on to make £300,000 emergency funding available for the sector but the criteria for the grants and total amount available meant that not everyone in our sector who needed it could benefit.
Our August survey showed that organisations were starting to make progress and were slowly increasing service delivery again as more looked to try to reintroduce face-to-face services where it was possible.
But this pandemic is nothing if not unpredictable. Since the summer there have been a series of local lockdowns with tighter restrictions and even as we were finalising our report, a firebreak lockdown was announced in Wales. This was followed by the national lockdown in England which changed the rules and restrictions both in communities and prisons putting a stop to a lot of the face-to-face services that had begun. Now having just come out of those national lockdowns, there will be yet more changes as a tiered system of local restrictions is implemented meaning organisations will have to re-adjust their services. In many cases, this will impact their ability to remobilise.
This unpredictability makes navigating the pandemic and key operational and financial decision-making all the more challenging. We know the latest lockdowns and stricter restrictions will have set back the progress organisations were starting to make towards remobilisation and recovery and a number of organisations – particularly those working in prisons - are facing the reality that they will not reintroduce face-to-face services at all this year.
What next and where do we go from here?
Our report shows that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound and severe impact on organisations and the people they support. But the pandemic is ongoing and we know this report isn’t the end of the story.
The full impact of Covid-19 on the sector is only just starting to be realised and organisations continue to face uncertainty about when they could possibly return to anything resembling ‘normality.’ Concerns continue to grow about future funding - both from trusts and foundations and from the government - as the country recovers from this crisis and faces a recession. Longer-term business strategies and plans for expansion or new projects will have been severely affected as organisations have been forced to focus on maintaining essential services during the crisis, and in many cases their reserves taking a large hit.
But despite these challenges ahead, the voluntary sector remains key to responding to Covid-19 and creating a fairer and more effective post-pandemic criminal justice system. Statutory services alone will not be able to respond to the heightened levels of need that there will be following this crisis, which is why implementing the recommendations the RR3 has made to the government on supporting the recovery of voluntary sector services and ensuring the sector’s financial stability is so important.
Clinks will continue to monitor the changes taking place in prisons and the community and the impact on the voluntary sector, providing support to navigate those changes and the challenges they create. We will also be advocating on the voluntary sector’s behalf, working to influence policy and practice so we can create an operational and funding environment that not only supports this sector to survive this crisis but enables it to go on to thrive and deliver services that transform people’s lives.