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On 19 March 2012 - 9:31pm

I do most of my work these days through Social Business Brokers, the social enterprise I set up in 2010 with fellow Leeds social entrepreneur Gill Coupland, founder of Angels Community Enterprises.

We’ve decided to change how we work this year to focus on particular social issues.  Issues that we think matter.  Issues where we think there’s a need for some socially enterprising thinking, and where we think there are opportunities to develop social ventures.

The main issue we’ve focused on so far is empty homes – based around a Call To Action that we’ve organised for the middle of May.  But, on a smaller scale, we’re looking at other issues too.  One we looked at today was prisoner re-offending.

We decided to look into this issue after reading some stats about the re-offending rates at our local prison.  More than 60% of prisoners who are released this month will be back inside within 12 months.  That’s an incredible loss of human potential, not to mention a massive cost to us all with regards to the cost of imprisonment and the personal and financial costs of crime.

We also heard about a Payment By Results trial at Leeds prison – so we decided that we’d see if we could get a few people together to explore the issue in a bit more detail.

Eight of us got together for a couple of hours this morning.  The format was simple:

  • What do we know and believe about prisoner re-offending?  What do we need to find out?
  • What do we think needs to change?
  • What opportunities exist/can we create to change things?
  • What are we going to do next – and can we do that together?

The discussion was really interesting.  We had a mix of people whose day job was to do with prisoners or offenders – whilst the majority of people were interested in this issue – and keen to work out if there were ways that they and their organisations could make a difference.

It’s hard to summarise the conversation, but it’s fair to say that there was a good amount of discussion about the need – in an ideal world – to tackle causes as well as symptoms.  We talked about some interesting initiatives we’d heard about – particularly around employment and skills – but also questioned whether isolated initiatives can make much difference – without a more profound rethinking of the prison system, and its balance between punishment and rehabilitation.

We then discussed what we might do.  Some ideas emerged – again a fair few with an employment and skills focus.  I’m sure plenty more would have been developed if we’d had more than the couple of hours that we’d given ourselves.

I left not knowing whether this was an issue that we would work more on.  Let me explain my thinking.  I think this is an issue where there is a massive need for social innovation.  And, on the face of it, there appear to be opportunities emerging to do things a bit differently.  Leeds Prison has shortlisted half-a-dozen providers (one of whom joined us today) for the Payment By Results pilot.  Other prisons are thinking of different ways to reduce re-offending.

Yet there’s a part of my that wonders how much of a difference we could make.  Politically, it feels like a tough one.  The political narrative – informed by much popular opinion – is that the role of prison is to punish.  And of course that’s an important role.  But that narrative doesn’t leave a lot of room for creative thinking around how we make sure that people don’t just end up offending again when they come out of prison.

Similarly, I worry about how effective initiatives like the Payment By Results pilot at Leeds will be.  It’s telling that all of the six shortlisted providers at Leeds are Work Programme providers.  The very same Work Programme that I – and countless others – have criticised for sidelining smaller organisations like many of the social enterprises that we work with.  Experience suggests that I shouldn’t expect the Ministry of Justice to learn much from the Department of Work and Pensions – particularly when the DWP doesn’t seem to think there’s much wrong with the Work Programme.

There’s also the issue about how hard it can be to engage with a big beast of an organisation like a prison.  I’ve rung the Prison – to speak to a specific, named person, four times in the past week.  I still haven’t been able to talk to – or even leave a message for – the person who, Leeds Chamber would have you believe – is running a groundbreaking programme of engagement with the Leeds business community.  We waste a lot of time working at the pace of people in the more bureaucratic wings of the public sector.  To be honest we can’t continue to waste that amount of time chasing opportunities.

So I’m a bit torn.  Do we engage with one or more of the shortlisted Prime Providers at Leeds – to see how we can connect them with innovative local organisations?  Or do we take the judgment that the kind of people we work with are better left out of a Payment By Results pilot which – you’d fear – would put them under severe financial pressure as risk is passed down the supply chain?

We’ll see how things go over the next few weeks.  Maybe our meeting – and the discussions opening up as a result – will see us getting more involved in this issue. Maybe I’ll finally chat with the guy at the Prison.   Or maybe we’ll decide it’s one issue where we can’t make much difference.

But if that’s the case, isn’t that a wasted opportunity – and shouldn’t people like those who joined us today have a decent opportunity to change the prison system for good?