Why competition is healthy

Criminal justice chief Helen Edwards tells Maria Ahmed why contracting out services should not be feared

● Director general of Noms since April 2006.
● Acting chief executive of the Noms since November 2005.
● Joined Home Office in 2002, became director general of the Home Office Communities Group in 2003.
● Chief executive of Nacro from 1997 to 2002.

National Offender Management Service director general Helen Edwards (pictured) denies the suggestion that she has inherited a poisoned chalice. “I chose to take this job of my own free will. I am under no illusions about the challenges,” she says.

It is almost a year since Edwards replaced Martin Narey as the head of Noms, one of the more controversial of Labour’s creations.

Since its launch in 2004, Noms has combined responsibility for prisons and probation and has attracted no shortage of criticism. Narey’s resignation was accompanied by speculation that he was abandoning a sinking ship that was failing to protect the public or please professionals.

Edwards admits it has been a tough year, which has included the roll-out of a plan to give each offender a single “offender manager” to oversee their progress through the system. The second phase of the rollout, which extends the scheme to those in custody, begins this week.

With the prison population at a record high, Edwards argues that the system of offender management is “more necessary than ever.” “We are currently recycling people through the system, but if we manage people more effectively we will reduce pressure on services”.

While the idea of offender management has been received positively – albeit with reservations over resources – some of the government’s other plans have not.

Edwards was recently booed by members of probation union Napo over government plans to put out failing probation services to competition from other providers.

Napo, along with more than 200 MPs, opposes the plans, which include removing the statutory duty to commission services from probation boards and giving it to the home secretary. The measures are due to be outlined in a bill expected in the Queen’s
Speech at the end of this month.

Edwards remains determined to press ahead. She says opposition to the plans is based on “a lot of misconceptions,” and denies that opening up failing probation services to competition will lead to privatisation. “This is certainly not about the abolition of the probation service, but allowing different players to show to what they can do,” she says. Edwards balks at the suggestion that the government’s agenda has been driven by media coverage of recent cases of murders in the community by offenders on probation.

“This is not something that is being whipped up. On the public protection front it’s not just about two or three high-profile cases.” Bringing in other organisations, including councils, will be key to reducing reoffending, says Edwards.

Her vision is one of “partnership” between organisations, not “cutthroat competition and monopolies”. Edwards wants councils to be “fully committed” to reducing re-offending. “It is part of the role of mainstream services to resettle offenders,” she argues.

However, the Local Government Association and other organisations this week have argued that government plans for regional commissioning under Noms will lead to a “top-down” system that will result in a loss of links with local services.

“The last thing we want is to lose local links,” Edwards argues. “We don’t have a fixed view of how the system will work.”

The rationale behind the plans is “not rocket science,” she insists. “Over 60 per cent of adult offenders re-offend within two years. We can’t be satisfied with that.”

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 Maria Ahmed


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