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Clive Martin | What if there was no voluntary sector?

“What if there was no voluntary sector?”

Clive Martin, Clinks


Thank you very much for your invitation to speak to you all tonight. For me personally it’s a great indulgence to be able to lay before you my thoughts after a 30 year career in criminal justice – working firstly with young offenders on community sentences here in London; then managing education departments in Everthorpe and Full Sutton prisons and now the voluntary sector and my years at Clinks, which are soon to come to an end.

And given the experience and expertise in the room this is a humbling moment!

I want to try and do a number of things this evening that set out my observations. I will talk about the sector specifically but in doing that I hope to also talk about reform and what might happen next. And while I will focus on the voluntary sector I know reform is not the preserve of the sector. It is something that all thinking professionals and learning organisations have been a part of, and I hope will continue to be a part of for many years to come.

So let’s set the scene

In presentations it’s always good to start optimistically. It gets people in a positive mood and we probably all need a bit of that right now. There are many good things that have happened over my years working in criminal justice, for example:

  • The ending of slopping out
  • The shifting of budgets and drawing in the Department of Health and Business, Innovation and Skills
  • Remarkable changes to the way in which chaplaincy services are provided within prisons.
  • The national development of drug treatment programmes and a much better understanding of the relationship between offending and mental health.
  • The acknowledgement of the role of the family in reducing offending.

Many of these have been a result of campaigning by the voluntary sector, and by others working within the Ministry of Justice.

Yet, alongside these successes we have to acknowledge an enormous failure. Our prison population has almost doubled while offending has fallen substantially, people are more afraid of crime than they have ever been and I think we have failed to see the emergence of any sort of coherent plan to keep people out of custody and to significantly support those who are sent to prison.

And remember this has happened despite the fact that many of the reasons given for failure 25 years ago have more or less disappeared – namely – the dominance of the state as the sole provider of services; the role of intransigent  trade unions as blockers of reform; the lack of a coherent academic theory of change.

All of this has changed – we have had increasing voluntary sector and private sector engagement on a significant scale for many years now; we have an elaborate commissioning structure that has gone way beyond the ambitions of the purchaser/provider split, and the powers of the unions in this area of work are significantly reduced. Added to which there are numerous academic models to inform whole system reform as well as individual behavioural change.

And during this period what has happened to the voluntary sector?

Well it has undoubtedly grown, and while that growth is wobbling a bit right now if growth is your metric of success then you might regard this as a sign that our sector has done well. However, I would argue that would be a simplistic assumption.

So let’s look back a bit for a minute. So long as there have been prisons there has been a voluntary sector and volunteers, keen to make a difference to the lives of people in custody. Early Victorian accounts talk of the promotion of abstinence and solitude as the being the means of turning your life around. (Not something I am considering as I enter a different life I have to say!)

The Thatcher years

But we can’t go that far back tonight so let’s turn to a more familiar time, and a time when for many history began - the Thatcher years. The Thatcher administration were engaged in so many epic battles between the state; the trade unions and the promotion of the private sector you hardly noticed the voluntary sector. However, down on criminal justice row it was the moment at which the voluntary sector decided to express itself a bit more vigorously.

The bone of contention that prompted the sector to act came about because of one Michael Howard the then Home Office Minster, who in an act much mimicked later by many of his Labour and Conservative counterparts, decided to throw out a number of voluntary sector organisations, who were engaged in remarkably revolutionary things like providing play space for children in visits rooms and helping HIV+ prisoners access basic medication.

His action caused outrage – practitioners and funders joined forces, ably led by Una Padel, a key figure in the establishment of Clinks in and the Bishop of Lincoln in the House of Lords (Lord Ramsbotham was still a twinkle in Michael Howard’s eye at that point!). Between them they facilitated angry meetings with frustrated voluntary sector providers and officials seeking to understand and resolve this issue.

It was a heady time – the voluntary sector expressing its opposition; the then Penal Affairs Consortium hosted by NACRO and drawing together a wide alliance of trade unions; voluntary sector delivery and campaigning organisations; members of the judiciary; private sector colleagues - all presenting a united front against the excesses of a Government that in the wake of the Bulger case were politicising crime, and the fear of crime, in a way we had not seen before.

Fast forward 25 years and I think you can see the similarity. You will know about the so-called book ban, the public out-cry and the numerous attempts to exclude and limit legitimate activity in prisons.

These similarities with some recent events show how little certain things have changed. Additionally, the potential alienation of civic allies, in-part what the voluntary sector represents, while being stated as a political priority remains as vulnerable now as it did then. For examples just three weeks ago Clinks hosted a meeting just up the road from here between charitable funders and senior civil servants, with charitable funders again thinking about pulling out of funding in criminal justice because it is so unclear what to fund and who the beneficiary will be.

The New Labour years

But we can’t hang around in the Thatcher years, the night is too short, and because we were rapidly bumped into the big Labour tent of ‘things can only get better’. And let’s make no bones about it – for the voluntary sector things did get better. Paul Boateng, as the then prisons minister and now Lord Boateng, had me doing the warm up for a number of his gigs up and down the country, imploring prison Governors to work more closely with the voluntary sector. We had the first voluntary sector co-ordinator appointed in headquarters, we had voluntary sector co-ordinators (supposedly) in every prison, we had a probation spend target for the voluntary sector and we were welcome pretty much everywhere.

Although there was trouble brewing in this nirvana – the initially hostile ship of accredited programmes had set sail from the west and was heading our way. For many years this was extremely troublesome for the sector as the extent and relevance of those programmes became better understood.

Innocent children in visitor’s rooms whose visits were just been seen as legitimate, rather than potential security threats, were about to be picked on! They needed to demonstrate how a few hours with mum or dad was going to reduce re-offending. I still remember clearly the meeting in which I was told that no visitors centre would ever be funded if it could not demonstrate how it reduced offending.

As well as being an example of what was happening at the time this also illuminates one of the confusions that remain within our rehabilitation system today – namely the relationship between human rights and rehabilitation services. Surely, while we remove the freedom of some people we must have a sense of their rights, as well as what would rehabilitate them, and our system still does not recognise this. We fail to ask questions about how a rights based approach can and should be integrated into a wider rehabilitation system.

But it would be wrong not to acknowledge that the years of the ‘big labour tent’ did see a significant change and by and large the voluntary sector were no longer just seen as ‘the enemy and a threat to security’ – there was a genuine shift to understanding and deploying the ideas and resources of community and voluntary engagement as being a fundamental building block of both civic accountability and rehabilitation.

However, this was not to last and the relationship between the public and Labour government began to sour.

Rightly or wrongly many link this to the time of the Iraq war when there was such public (and voluntary sector) criticism of military action, causing a serious rupture in the trust between Government and the sector. We were no longer all lovvies and there was a much greater need to manage us – as much in terms of what we said as to how we delivered services.

The big tent was no longer lively with debate and ideas but it was a quieter more austere place; discussion was increasingly corralled and sanitised into commissioning and procurement - this became the temple of best value which became synonymous with reform.

Some in the sector welcomed this. Undoubtedly in part, because the government and the sector had developed some bad habits. Particularly, some growth had come about because of the sectors ability to lobby rather than deliver, and that was as common in criminal justice as it was in other parts of government. Organisations rightly wanted to expand on the basis of their work, not on their ability to access senior civil servants and ministers.

But power had shifted – we were no longer a broad professional group from different sectors sharing ideas – we were buyers and sellers.

This idea was and remains a fallacy.

The commissioning landscape

The buyer and seller metaphor reinforces the idea that there are only two parties involved in this transaction and there are obviously not. The third party, the ‘offender’, is the ultimate user of the service and they don’t seem to feature in this transaction at all.  Commissioning and procurement is in danger of becoming a cat and mouse game between purchaser and provider with little regard to the rich source of evidence the final user of the service might hold. This looks like depriving reform of a major component of evidence as well as a very old fashioned way of doing things.

But the immediate result of the new commissioning, and many of you might want to ponder why and how this happened, was that the voice or campaigning role of the sector became, and remains, a lot quieter. As often happens, voluntary sector organisations reflected, or reinforced, a particular kind of silence.

The voice of the voluntary sector

Voice and campaigning appears to have become a specialist activity when it should be at the heart of what every voluntary sector organisation is about. Without a constant eye on reform and how to bring it about, the sector is merely endlessly engaged in first aid – applying plasters to bleeding social wounds and system failure.

And if it is not the voluntary sector who is going to tell the story of where services fail; what the implications of that failure is, are and how things might be fixed then who is? Are constituency MPs going to get this from their Friday surgeries? Are we going to be totally reliant on investigative journalism? Of course these things are important but they are not enough.

Undoubtedly, you can have self-generated internal reform within large government delivery organisations – but the perspective; the hierarchy and the vested interests that exist in all organisations make that much more difficult to achieve. Social reform needs strong and contrasting perspectives, varied evidence and diverse voices otherwise they are susceptible to self-interest and the status quo.

And we are already seeing some worrying signs about voice in the new arrangements – and one example where it appears that we are being asked to inform a Community Rehabilitation Company before we speak to any of our members who might be in their supply chain.

But that point aside you probably guessed that I don’t intend to talk too much about the latest reforms of Transforming Rehabilitation and the voluntary sector. A lot of that has already been said and it’s simply too soon to tell if TR is the vanguard of opportunity or another shrine on the road to oblivion for the sector.

But it is clear to me, and many across the sector, that the voluntary sector is in fundamental danger. I don’t mean that in name – I am confident that we will always have citizens who want to undertake collective action to alleviate the needs they see in their own lives and the lives of those they love. I mean by purpose and function.

Despite everything the sector has achieved and its uniqueness in the make-up of NGO structures globally, we are seeing a constant, and increasingly vocal, criticism of the sector by politicians of all colours. We’ve seen legislation to limit the activities of the sector; we have had criticism about taking government money while being critical of government policy; during the recent party conference season we have had accusations that far too many voluntary sector staff are Labour Party supporters (although Tony Blair might have come to a different conclusion when he was slow clapped by the WI) and we have seen megaphone criticisms of some organisations and how they went about their business.

Now some of this might be fair cop and we are all responsible for how we run and manage the organisations we work in.

But there is a fundamental misunderstanding here. The sector has one primary purpose and that is to change the lives of its service users. We are not here to support a particular policy, give credibility to any particular government nor win contracts just to sustain ourselves.

We are here to change lives. We do this through services, through collecting honest information that makes the case for a better world. Truth and evidence is all we have. Our financial resources, even the richest of us, are minimal.

When politicians decry the voluntary sector for being too critical, or of a different political colour, or of creating a problem rather than solving it - they do damage to not just the sector but the way our democracy works and the way in which the needs and resources of communities and individuals are brought to the attention of the wider community.

Frankly there is little point in a voluntary sector that does not speak truth to power. If this apparent decline continues, as a consequence of political insecurity and/or arrogance and the frailty of commissioning then we, collectively as professionals, have failed and we might as well leave the relentless grind of locking up people to some sort of industrial project, and continue to have offenders in the community remotely risk managed rather than rehabilitated.

So what can be done?

Many of you will know the Russel Webster blogs, and you might know the series that invited people to blog about what they might do if they were to become Justice Secretary in May after the election. What was interesting about these blogs were the number of contributors who called for a ‘Commission of Enquiry’ type board to really look at how we might just draw breath and really consider what our rehabilitation system looks like.

Reform after reform have either failed or its success has been limited. We need more honesty about this and we should use the evidence from this more strategically.

With all due respects at times our system begins to resemble the pop-up shop syndrome of some of our town centres -

  • The Restorative Justice shop; here for a while in some parts doing some things;
  • The Justice Re-Investment model; got great attention then shut up shop;
  • The Resettlement Prison; are you buying a mentor or a compliance officer?
  • The asset based approach; what does that sell, and how do we begin to understand the assets of someone when we have so little dialogue with them?

These are all potentially good things but where and how do they and the numerous other initiatives fit in the grander scheme of things?

We must join forces in whatever way to advocate for a real thinking through of what our Criminal Justice System needs and how we will achieve that. We would be foolish if we sat by without acting; sunk by the gloominess of austerity and abdicating all responsibility while we wait for Payment by Results to run its course.

There are some things we can do.

  1. We have to increase the points of contact between civic society and the justice system, and we have to use the information gathered through this to think more strategically. Some points of contact are significant and exist already – the Rehabilitation Forum; the Third Sector Reducing Re-offending Advisory Board; the Boards of Visitors.

    But they are all limited; they tend to capture historic data without catapulting that into policy making and they serve the purposes of managers far more than they attempt to understand and deploy community knowledge and resources.

    There has been little discussion about the role of the Community Rehabilitation Companies in this regard and we are in danger of making a weak aspect of our system worse. Commissioning even in its broadest sense will not achieve this, and we need to make this a systematic and sustainable part of our system to include aspects of gender, race and class.
  2. The voluntary sector cannot be the only commentator on punishment and rehabilitation policy. We are a sitting duck and the scope and volume of our comment will become quieter and narrower. We need to strengthen and broaden the alliances across professional and sector bodies, as we did in the past, and we need smart and professional communications policies to sit alongside of this.
  3. As reformers, we really should examine the return we’ve had on the hours and hours invested in direct lobbying of Westminster. This will always be necessary and a part of what we do but my view is that it’s time for some serious direct campaigning to the public that might help others act more boldly. For example, I do believe there would be wide-spread public sympathy for what is happening in terms of mental health and offending; gender and offending; conditions in some prisons.

    We should not give up on this, we should not surrender to the first tabloid clobber, but rather find smart and intelligent ways of engaging with the public.
  1. The voluntary sector have to stay focused on the users of this system. This includes victims, it includes the many offenders who are also victims. We desperately need a national debate in the true meaning of both those words. And we can’t forget the tax payers who pay for it all.

    We must understand that a successful model of social reform that doesn’t have the views of users at the heart of intelligence gathering and planning will seldom work. We have ignored this for years – no serious attempts to gather offender experience across the board; no attempt to gather family perspectives, and so on.
  2. The Ministry of Justice and the voluntary sector could form a powerful alliance to limit many of the contributing factors to offending. It is no longer good enough for us just to accept that people end up in Criminal Justice System because other systems and services have failed them. We expect the fire service to put out fires but we also expect them to understand how fires start and prevent that in the first place. There needs to be a much closer link between departments to ensure that prevention work, and diversion schemes, are high on the agenda with clear responsibilities and accountability.

In conclusion

It seems to me that most progress has been made through our history of perseverance, commitment to our beliefs, our faith in the resilience of human nature, and our desire to see justice. These are the things that define the voluntary sector, and these are the things that will make a truly long term difference.

The fundamental ingredient of reform is critical voice. It must survive.

I wanted to close by saying that I have got so much more out of my work in criminal justice than I have ever put in. And the reason for this is undoubtedly the people in the Criminal Justice System that I have worked with; they have taught me a great deal and inspired me in my own life.

I stand amazed by their resilience in the face of a life and system that continues to judge them on the worst thing they have ever done long after it ever happened; their willingness for change when there appears to be so little reason that things will; and their own hope that they will one day be free of their demons and that they will experience, as I do every time I leave a prison, the remarkable sense of my own freedom and the opportunity for my own life.

To them I say a big thank you. And to my many colleagues – it’s been great, thank you and good luck.