Heading toward a crisis
In its white paper on Prison Safety and Reform, released last year , the Government reported that “Once released, too many prisoners will go on to re-offend. Currently, almost half of all prisoners are re-convicted within a year of release.” The costs of this to society and the taxpayer are incalculable.
It follows, therefore, does it not, that it is important that we do everything that we can to ensure that the chances of prisoners re-offending are minimised . The biggest challenges in this respect are to get ex-prisoners sustainable employment and a place to live, so avoiding the revolving door syndrome. Of course, as the government is at pains to tell us, a wide range of factors affect the likelihood of a prisoner entering employment on release. Information, advice and guidance provided by Community Rehabilitation Companies, Department of Work and Pensions Prison Work Coaches and providers of Offender Learning and Skills Services to name a few . But most agree that an important element of this supportive mix , perhaps even the most important, comes in the shape of National Careers Service (NCS) advisers who have supported prisoners throughout their sentences helping them to develop clear action plans based on independent careers advice and local labour market information, so they can prepare and work towards finding employment opportunities in the community.
NCS contracts, both in prisons and communities, had been due to end in April 2018, However as the replacement Information, Advice and Guidance provision under the new Education Commissioning Framework has not yet been put into place, there was a clear and frankly reasonable expectation in the sector that they would be extended until the new provision was in place. Contracts could easily have been extended by six months, for example. Though contracts in the community have been extended so there is no gap and shortfall in provision, the same has not been done in prisons. Providers were given formal notice over the Christmas break so contracts will end on 31 March. Over 200 guidance specialists have now been given notice.
This will mean at least a five-month gap in specialist careers guidance services, during which time many experienced staff with good employer connections will lose their jobs. Everyone seems to have been taken entirely by surprise by this move- NCS providers, the third sector organisations who work with the secure estate and prison governors. Indeed the latter were not directly informed of this decision, which was made at the end of December 2017, and only found out when NCS providers told them the news.
The Prisoner Learning Alliance (PLA), after hearing from a number of concerned careers advisers wrote to Prisons Minister Rory Stewart’ expressing concern about the cuts to this valuable service and asking: Why the decision had been made; What steps were being taken to replace the service? ‘ The news has since been covered by FE Week and by The Guardian, which also quoted shadow justice minister Imran Hussein calling the measure “short-sighted” and a “false economy”. To date, The PLA has not yet received a reply from the minister.
In the Lords on 8th February, Lord Bird asked the Minister, Lord Keen whether he was aware that the National Careers Service in custody contracts were going to be terminated on 1 April and “that there does not seem to be any remedy in place”
Lord Keen of Elie, the Minister replied :“My Lords, the NCS is due to expire on 31 March 2018 and will do so on that day. There would have been an option to extend it for a further period of six months, but consideration of the variable delivery of services, and of in-custody services in particular, led to a determination that the contract should not be continued. Alternative means are now being considered.”
On the face of it , this all looks to be a bit of a shambles. And, nothing coming out of the civil service or Ministers recently suggests otherwise.
Rather obviously, there are a number of issues here that give rise to important questions . On what basis was the decision made.? If there was a review what was its methodology, what was its evidence base, who was consulted and what were the Reviews’ specific conclusions. Why was the decision taken without any consultation with the key stakeholders involved including Prison Governors and Third Sector organisations that work closely with prisoners? Why was no extension given to existing contractors to ease the transition and to ensure prisoners will not be left without careers advice for several months, at least? Why have no arrangements been put in place to ensure that Prisoners being released are given access to professional guidance after 1 April ? In short why the lack of transparency, forward planning and consultation?
In October 2016, a Machinery of Government change transferred the budget for careers advice in Prisons from the Department for Education to the Ministry of Justice. The National Careers Service Contract for Careers guidance for those in custody is held by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and is funded by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. The decision not to renew or extend contracts appears to have come from the Probation Service.