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Society Of Voluntary Associates

Volume 176: debated on Friday 13 July 1990

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Wood.]

2.30 pm

I am grateful for the opportunity in this short debate to draw the attention of the House to the valuable work performed by the Society of Voluntary Associates. I propose, first, to describe the work done by the society, and then to draw a number of lessons of wider application for the way it, which we deal with offenders and young people at risk of offending.

The Society of Voluntary Associates—or SOVA—is a national charity which recruits and trains volunteers from local communities to work with offenders, their families and young people in trouble. SOVA's president is Baroness Seear and its vice president is Lord Hunt—who was recently honoured by the Sovereign as a knight of the Garter. These are two admirable members of another place whose tireless work in this field over many years has been admired by so many of us. The volunteers who are recruited and trained by SOVA work alongside the main agencies serving the criminal justice system, including the probation service, social services departments and the national voluntary agencies which work to resettle offenders.

SOVA's volunteers are deployed in a wide variety of ways. For example, they visit people in prison, befriend and support them on release, work with offenders on probation, befriend the partners and families of people in prison, help to find work or accommodation for ex-offenders, teach them literacy or numeracy skills, support offenders with alcohol dependency problems and work in day centres, hostels and drug rehabilitation units. The society is currently working with seven probation areas—Berkshire, north-east London, south-east London, West Sussex, Kent, Cleveland and Humberside—and is running befrienders schemes in five London boroughs. If also has a variety of specialist schemes of other kinds.

The best way to illustrate the work of the society is to describe some of the projects in which it is involved. An example well known to Mr. Speaker is the Croydon befrienders scheme, now in its sixth year of operation, which receives financial support from Croydon council The scheme recruits volunteers to work with young offenders and with other young people who are deemed to be at risk of offending. Each year the scheme provides trained volunteers to befriend more than 50 young people in the Croydon area, and Mr. Speaker himself takes a particular interest in SOVA's work in the Croydon area.

Most of the volunteers are young adults between the ages of 18 and 24, while most of the youngsters are in the 13 to 14–year age range, with a substantial number of 15 and 16–year-olds. Some have already come to police notice as a result of offending, while others are considered by social workers to be at risk of offending due to their home circumstances. In the first five years of the scheme's operation, 89 per cent. of the young people befriended through the scheme were successfully kept out of court. SOVA's most recent annual report observed:

"Whilst we are very pleased with this success rate, it must be remembered that this is only one form of evaluation, and many benefits are derived by the youngsters from their relationship with their befrienders, which cannot be measured by statistics".
As a result of the success of the Croydon befrienders scheme, in the past year SOVA has been invited to set up a further four such schemes—in Wandsworth, Lambeth, my own area of the City of Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham—a clear and encouraging sign that the value of this approach is evident to local councils of widely differing political persuasions.

A number of important lessons can be learnt from the work of SOVA. The first is the vital contribution to the resettlement of offenders and the prevention of crime that can be made by ordinary members of the community of both sexes and all ages, drawn from all walks of life, giving their services freely. We must make sure that we fully use the potential for voluntary involvement of that kind if we are to reduce levels of crime in our society. That includes ensuring that voluntary organisations receive adequate levels of funding. Amounts of grant aid, which are tiny in relation to expenditure on the criminal justice system, can produce astounding value in the amount of effective, high-quality work which results.

Secondly, SOVA's approach highlights the fact that the voluntary approach is not the same as an amateurish approach. On the contrary, a concern about quality runs through the organisation from top to bottom, and with it goes a real sense of professionalism. Recognising that voluntary work with offenders is highly skilled, SOVA provides specialist, highly developed training for its volunteers, as well as training probation officers and social workers in the use and management of volunteers.

Thirdly, SOVA's work underlines the fact that many offenders are also victims—victims of their own circumstances of disadvantage and inadequacy. If they are to lead law-abiding lives, they often have to overcome problems of illiteracy, poverty, unemployment and drug or alcohol addiction. It is there that the help and support of individual volunteers—helping them find their way through the social security and housing benefit systems, encouraging and motivating them to sustain their fight against addiction—is of the greatest value. SOVA's literacy scheme, which recruits and trains volunteer tutors for offenders referred by probation officers and prison education officers, is just one example of the society's work in helping offenders to overcome their personal disadvantages.

Fourthly, much of SOVA's work demonstrates the importance of keeping offenders—especially young offenders—out of penal establishments wherever possible and dealing with them in the community. That is true, for example, of the work of SOVA volunteers in intermediate treatment centres. The centres involve juvenile offenders in programmes of supervised activities which are having considerably greater success than custody in diverting young people from reoffending.

Fifthly, SOVA's work illustrates the value of partnership in combating crime—partnership between statutory agencies, voluntary organisations, the private sector and the community. An excellent example of this partnership is the HOPE project in Hartlepool, which was set up jointly last year by SOVA, Cleveland probation service and the inner city task force. The project aims to integrate offenders, with the support of volunteers, into local facilities for training, education, community care and leisure activities.

The project's management committee is a model of partnership, involving representatives of the probation service, the police, the task force, the educational sector, industry and commerce. During the first year of its operation, the project recruited 35 volunteers to work with up to 70 offenders. Each offender is assessed and then linked with community resources, such as employment training, education, community care and leisure activities. The volunteer is responsible for making the link between the offender and the community resources and then providing continuing support.

Another impressive example of partnership is the Berkshire PACT project, financed by the Home Office, in which SOVA volunteers are working with young adult offenders on release from custody. The project is a partnership between SOVA, the Apex trust and the Berkshire probation service. Its work with young offenders is based on individual "contracts"—PACT stands for positive action contract—which gives the offender significant, focused time with a volunteer and attends to his or her employment, training, leisure and social needs. The Apex trust has provided an employment consultant for the project and is developing links with the local business community. The Berkshire probation service identifies offenders on its caseload who could benefit from the project, accredits and supervises the volunteers and provides premises for the project.

In these and many other ways, the work of the Society of Voluntary Associates—and of the many other voluntary organisations working with offenders—points the way to better ways of dealing with crime and achieving a safer and more decent society.

2.41 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Peter Lloyd)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler) on securing this debate. I am pleased that he has devoted it to such an inspirational subject, and I am glad to have the opportunity to reply to some of the points that he has made. My hon. Friend is well known for his wise, imaginative and long-standing interest in matters relating to penal policy, and it is therefore no surprise that he should want to emphasise the varied and essential roles that voluntary organisations such as SOVA already play in the criminal justice system and what they might do if the opportunities were opened up further.

SOVA is very highly regarded, and is well established with the Home Office as a national voluntary organisation which, as my hon. Friend has said, aims to promote community involvement in the resettlement of offenders and young people at risk. It does so partly by recruiting and training volunteers to work alongside the probation and social services, and also by providing consultancy and training to other agencies in the criminal justice field. SOVA also generates community involvement through its use of volunteers across the range of work with offenders and ex-offenders, which my hon. Friend has described so well. I commend those volunteers, who are not paid and who, as my hon. Friend has said, wish to contribute in that important but time-consuming way. We owe them a great deal.

SOVA receives core funding from the Home Office as a contribution towards its central administrative costs to enable it to carry out its resettlement work. The organisation makes a charge for the services that it provides to probation and social services.

I endorse my hon. Friend's remarks about the contribution to SOVA of Baroness Seear and Lord Hunt.

My hon. Friend has ably described SOVA's work. I should like to underline the examples that he has given. For instance, the Home Office very much appreciates the innovative work that SOVA is doing—with the aid of Home Office funding and in partnership with the Apex trust and Berkshire probation service—with young adult offenders. This is a novel project recruiting, as it does, volunteers to work with young adult offenders in character building, vocational skills, social skills, community skills and with individual problems, such as addictions, and providing the opportunity for skills training, pre-employment training and leisure training.

I agree that a commendable example of SOVA's ability to achieve a partnership in combating crime and the fear of crime is the establishment of the HOPE project in Hartlepool, in partnership with the Cleveland probation service, the inner-city task force and leading members of the local community. I am glad that the Home Office has been able to make some funding available through its safer cities grant scheme to assist with that work.

My hon. Friend is right to point to the valuable work that SOVA is doing through its befrienders scheme in Croydon with young people at risk of offending. My hon. Friend mentioned the work in Croydon particularly, and I know that Mr. Speaker takes a special interest in it. The use of young volunteers to work with the youngsters, a number of whom are in care—increasingly, following a caution—is an imaginative approach to the aim of diverting them from the court process. The success rate is encouraging, and I am pleased to learn of the prospects for expansion of the scheme.

No less praise worthy is SOVA's literacy scheme—which my hon. Friend also mentioned—with its aim of giving offenders referred by probation officers and prison education officers the confidence to undertake proper adult literacy training.

It is not least because of the proven track record of innovation, flexibility and professionalism of voluntary organisations such as SOVA in their work with offenders that the Government have published the discussion paper, "Partnership in Dealing with Offenders in the Community". As my hon. Friend knows, the paper explores future roles for the independent sector—that is, voluntary organisations, volunteers and profit-making bodies—in the criminal justice system, so that the probation service can concentrate on areas requiring its specialist skills.

In recent years, there has been a blossoming of community involvement in the tackling of crime, with the neighbourhood watch scheme, for instance, now being very much a part of everyday life. It is essential, therefore, that the community should also be involved in the treatment of offenders. As SOVA has emphatically shown, and as my hon. Friend has sagely commented, "voluntary" does not mean amateur. Many voluntary organisations already work in the criminal justice system, and there is room for an even greater involvement of the voluntary sector in cautioning and charging policies; bail arrangements; programmes of supervision and work with prisoners before and after release, especially on welfare matters; social crime prevention, particularly youth provision; and help with victims of crime.

We are seeking to encourage greater voluntary sector involvement through a programme of grants for organisations working with young adult offenders, as £7·3 million is available over four years. Last year we made grants to 11 organisations, the PACT project in Berkshire being one recipient. This year we have received over 100 applications for funding. We cannot, alas, meet them all, but it is heartening that so many voluntay organisations are interested in the work.

The discussion paper encourages the development of partnership between the independent sector and the statutory agencies to do the work that I have mentioned. SOVA has shown how that can be done. Three options for funding voluntary and private sector organisations are rehearsed in the discussion document: locally organised provision, centrally organised provision and a mixture of the two.

Under locally organised provision, the probation service would provide or buy in all core statutory services. All funds would be channelled through the probation service, and only pilot or evaluation exercises might be centrally funded. With a centrally organised arrangement, local probation services would provide only statutory services; the remainder would be put out to tender. If there were a more structured mix of central and local provision, local initiatives might be funded locally, but nationally significant projects might be centrally funded.

We have invited views on that, as on the other issues covered in the discussion paper. Indeed, the Home Office has said that it is willing to sponsor a series of conferences to stimulate discussion of the issues, and is inviting proposals from interested organisations to arrange such events. I know that SOVA is currently discussing with officials in my Department running one in the autumn. The Government want a debate, and want to take an active part in it.

I recognise that a crucial factor in securing the wider involvement of the voluntary sector in the criminal justice system will be the Government's ability to provide an appropriate level of funding. We shall have to look at that once we have considered the various views and completed the round of discussions with interested bodies. The discussion paper rightly stresses the importance of monitoring and evaluation to secure value for money and that will underpin our ability to argue for the right level of resources.

The recommendations of the "Scrutiny of Government Funding of the Voluntary Sector", if accepted by the Government, will be important too in clarifying the relationship of Government Departments with the voluntary organisations that they fund in that there will be agreement about the objectives to be achieved. When he announced publication of the scrutiny, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary outlined a number of principles that will condition Government funding for voluntary bodies. Those principles included the extent to which voluntary bodies use or encourage volunteers. That underlines one of the important points that my hon. Friend made in opening the debate.

I hope that we shall be able to bring about more involvement by the independent sector in criminal justice. As SOVA has shown, this is undoubtedly the way to providing a different, additional and innovative perspective on problems and increasing the range of alternatives for dealing with them.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend both for what he said about SOVA—it is valuable and heartening to know and have it on record—and for giving me this opportunity to reply to the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes to Three o'clock.