In my role as Development Officer for the South West, I hear a lot about what’s happening on the ground in the voluntary sector. In this blog I’m going to share some of that with you as well as what Clinks is currently doing and planning in the region.
Why the South West?
Clinks’ work in the South West started in 2005, supported by Tudor Trust and Lankelly Chase Foundation, and marked the beginning of Clinks local development work. A Development Manager was appointed to develop partnership work between the statutory and voluntary sectors in the Criminal Justice System. Though we have done a lot of different things since then, supporting and encouraging partnership working is a common thread that runs through it all. This could be partnership between voluntary organisations, such as helping the sector set up criminal justice networks or consortia, or partnership between sectors, for example encouraging prisons, police and probation services to work more closely with voluntary sector organisations.
Clinks began its local work in recognition of the fact that the voluntary sector faces different challenges across the country, and also that if you are based in areas furthest from London it can be harder to keep linked in with national developments. In the South West, there are hundreds of voluntary sector organisations working with people in the Criminal Justice System, on everything from supporting defendants in court to sports activities that help young people move away from crime. In this region many organisations face the particular challenges of working in a rural area – travel costs are considerably higher both for organisations themselves and their service users. It is harder for organisations to network and collaborate when they are more spread out over a large area. It is a particular challenge for those areas that are far from the nearest prisons, and many people are in prison hundreds of miles away from their support networks at home, be they family, friends or local services. This can make resettlement planning very challenging.
The South West doesn’t benefit from as many regional strategic forums, networks and partnerships as other areas have, simply because it’s less practical to meet up. So for organisations based here, it can be harder to find out who is making decisions and who they need to be influencing, and harder to get your voice heard and hear about what other people are doing. However, there are benefits to the region’s remoteness too. It can lead to lots of innovation and creativity, and also a very diverse voluntary sector made up of lots of smaller organisations and self-help groups, formed to respond to local needs not being met by larger national organisations.
In this context Clinks aims to support our members in the South West to work more closely in partnership with each other and with criminal justice agencies.
I was really pleased to hear recently of a secondment from the Community Rehabilitation Company (CRC) into a voluntary sector organisation. This post is part funded by the CRC and partly by the voluntary organisation, using funds provided by a Liaison and Diversion scheme. This is just the kind of partnership work we would like to see more of with probation and the voluntary sector, which is particularly valuable in challenging times of cut backs and redundancies. Recently a new community hub opened in Dorset, where probation staff sit alongside staff from partner agencies to provide more joined-up support for service users.
There are some exciting developments by commissioners (Plymouth and Cornwall in particular) on systems change for people with multiple and complex needs. There is lots of welcome recognition of the need to dismantle silos, streamline commissioning so timescales are all the same, and change culture through ‘System Optimisation Groups’ that challenge staff to work together better. There is also a move to enable all staff (in housing, mental health, criminal justice, drugs, general council advice etc.) to be better skilled in mental health, trauma-informed approaches and understanding the impact of adverse childhood experiences.
We keep hearing that ongoing cutbacks and staff shortages and/or redundancies in the statutory sector have been making it harder and harder for voluntary sector agencies to work with the public sector, in particular prisons and probation. In the South West, and across the country, there has been a common trend in CRCs to de-prioritise partnership roles, with staff who previously had responsibility for multi-agency working (including engaging the voluntary sector) being switched to other roles or made redundant. Clinks considers this approach to be very short-sighted — the whole web of support provided by a wide range of organisations is key to reducing re-offending. Probation officers need to be able to refer their service users on to other services, and this depends upon good working relationships with a range of organisations (and also there being adequate funding for those organisations to exist). There are lots of brilliant staff within CRCs that fully understand this, but the current pressures they are under make this difficult in practice.
Many of the targets and frameworks that made partnership working a requirement have gradually been removed. For example, there used to be a prison service order that required prisons to have a member of staff responsible for engaging with the voluntary sector, but this was removed several years ago. With staff under more and more pressure, several prisons have stopped running partnership meetings where voluntary sector organisations working in the prison could meet with senior staff. However, Clinks’ Good Prison Project is supporting partnership working and seeing the return of these forums and other activity in the prisons taking part in its pilot (Exeter, Dartmoor and Guys Marsh).
What are we doing?
We have recently launched regional policy forums to bring together organisations regularly to get up to speed with national and local policy developments. In the South West, these will rotate around the region allowing all organisations the chance to participate. Read my blog on the first forums here. John Wiseman, Probation Director for the two South West CRCs, will speak at the next forum which will take place in Bristol on 7th March.
In December, Clinks and i-Hop held the Promoting Family Ties in the Changing Criminal Justice System conference in Taunton to share learning on how to work with families of those who have offended, as well as informing the Farmer Review. On 24th February there will be a Service User Involvement Managers’ Network meeting in Plymouth, to enable those responsible for service user involvement in their organisations to learn from others - including service users - on how to make it effective. We are also planning an event on women in the Criminal Justice System working in partnership with Cornwall VSF and WRSAC.
- As part of the MEAM Coalition, I’m providing support to local areas working with people with multiple and complex needs, helping to ensure services are better co-ordinated and more flexible. At the moment I’m working with Golden Key in Bristol helping them engage clients not in touch with other services, and review how they record their work with clients. MEAM is hoping to work with some new local areas across the South West and the rest of England later this year. Please get in touch if you are interested.
- Over the next few months I will be mapping strategic engagement in the Criminal Justice System in the South West. I’ll be looking at what key strategic forums and boards there are and how voluntary sector organisations are able to participate and influence decisions. Do you sit on partnerships or boards? Share your experiences with me, please get in touch.
For further information or to get involved in any of this work, or if you have an issue you would like to raise with Clinks or get support on, please do get in touch. Also let me know if you would like to receive updates for organisations based in the South West by email. Isabel.firstname.lastname@example.org / 07875 542281.