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The ‘non-contracted’ voluntary sector and probation services (Part 2)

Following up on my previous article, here is the second part of my blog originally published as a Clinks Guest Blog, in which I look at the changing relationship between the voluntary sector and probation service provision, and how Unlock is responding. 






There’s one common factor amongst everyone who works with people on probation – their clients have a criminal record.

At Unlock, a key focus is the importance of people with convictions receiving accurate, reliable advice on understanding and dealing with the effects of their criminal record. That means that we provide information, advice and support directly, through things like our self-help information site and our peer-run helpline. However, these are charitably-funded forms of support, for the benefit of individuals directly.

A possible unfortunate consequence of the recent reforms is that voluntary sector organisations have to compete against one another. Some may say this is a good thing – personally, I struggle to match ‘competition’ with the traditional concept of ‘charity’. That’s why we’re taking a different approach.

I recognise that Unlock cannot do everything. Instead, we listen, we respond to gaps, and we develop alternatives. With the changing probation landscape, that has given us a real opportunity to achieve our aim – that people with convictions receive accurate, reliable advice on understanding and dealing with the effects of their criminal record. Of course, many people are no longer on probation, but for those that are, the need is arguably even greater.

So what have we done? Instead of seeking to be commissioned by NOMS or sub-contracted by ‘prime providers’, our role in this context is one of ‘supporting others’.

That’s why, in the last 18 months alone, we’ve provided more of our one-day criminal record disclosure training course, ‘Advising with Conviction’, than ever before. We’ve trained over 400 practitioners, with over 40% being probation-related staff. Some of these have been core ‘ETE’ probation officers – others have been staff of voluntary sector agencies working with probation, such as Michael.

And the feedback has been tremendous. For example, one attendee wrote afterwards that the course was “one of the most useful I’ve done in my 25 year career. Everyone who helps and gives advice to people with criminal records should do this – it should be mandatory”.

But the feedback we’ve had has also made us think. Often, we’re told that this is a very complex subject, and that a day simply isn’t long enough. That’s why we’ve recently responded by developing and announcing dates for a new 2-day course. This has been designed specifically for probation providers, staff in CRC’s, and specialists helping people with convictions to get into employment.

The conversations we’ve had with probation service providers are promising. But it’s clear that it’s taking time for the new providers to get their operating practices in place.

Ultimately, it’s important for me that Unlock remains true to its vision. That means that, in this context, making sure that people with convictions receive accurate, reliable advice on understanding and dealing with the effects of their criminal record.  That’s why we will always try to provide free information and advice to people with convictions.

However, how that works with ‘providers of services’ funded by Government (whether that is probation providers, work programme providers, careers advisors or others) will vary. Our focus isn’t to “sell training” (we don’t profit out of it, as any income simply supports our charitable work) and it’s important to me that Unlock’s work isn’t seen as operating in any kind of ‘competitive’ environment.

Nonetheless, it’s important that probation providers recognise their role in this. As I mentioned in my first blog, we’ve seen an increasing reliance by ‘practitioners’ on our ‘client-facing’ services – and that’s not sustainable for a small, independent charity like Unlock.

It’s right that providers and commissioners properly resource their work, and if they need help to do it, they need to respond accordingly. That’s where there’s a change in the nature of the relationship. For Unlock, it’s an important relationship for us to maintain, as we know that people with convictions often fall down because of the poor advice they’ve received at an earlier stage. We look forward to working with those providers who understand and respect our role, in the same way that we do theirs.




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Photo of Head of Advice, Debbie Sadler
Debbie Sadler
Head of Advice

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