‘A question of quality’ – the Victims’ Commissioner’s report

The Victims’ Commissioner, Baroness Newlove, published a report yesterday on restorative justice, the first of two considering its use. This one looks at the quality of service that restorative justice service providers are delivering, while the second will look at victims’ experiences. The focus of this report is welcome. It recognises the importance of quality in the delivery of restorative justice and sets out the Victims’ Commissioner’s views on how to develop a high quality service. This incorporates the RJC’s own work on standards, accreditation and quality assurance, focusing on the Restorative Service Standards and the Restorative Service Quality Mark (RSQM).

The report deserves more detailed scrutiny, but having read it yesterday several key issues stand out, one being its sole focus on services developed or commissioned by PCCs. As a result it looks at only a narrow slice of the restorative justice field, excluding, for example, services provided by probation services, prisons and youth offending teams. These agencies all work primarily with offenders, but that makes it all the more important that their work with victims is up to scratch.

Because of this focus on services developed or commissioned by PCCs, the report states that: ‘very few service providers had achieved the RSQM’. This is a pressing issue and progress is being made – two PCC hubs have the RSQM, six PCCs commission services from organisations that hold the RSQM, and a further six PCC services are currently going through the assessment process – but we are continually striving to ensure that more services sign up in the future. It’s important to remember, though, that the RSQM is new – it was only launched in 2014 – and so are the services that PCCs have set up. In many cases it’s still too early for them to be accredited as they have not yet built up a body of work that can be assessed.

Some of those interviewed for the report also expressed concerns about the RSQM process, including the cost and the fact that it takes time to complete. While we would like to provide the RSQM for free – and it is run at a loss for the RJC, subsidised in part by the Ministry of Justice – that’s not practically possible. In fact, we’ve found that where organisations have not had to pay for it themselves they are sometimes less engaged with the process. Arguably, committing to it financially is a motivator to completing the process. And yes, achieving the RSQM takes work, but that’s the case for any accreditation process – it has to be in order for it to be robust. Nonetheless, the RSQM has recently been subject to an independent review, which will enable us to take steps to streamline and simplify the application process.

The report goes on to state that: ‘a number of additional practices carried out by service providers were identified which also demonstrated how a good quality restorative justice service can be provided’. It adds: ‘despite some service providers making the decision to not apply for the RSQM, they had standards in place which ensured they were delivering a restorative justice service to a certain level of quality and consistency’. This is true, of course, and our work to ensure quality in delivery is not intended to replace internal mechanisms designed to manage performance. But nor are internal mechanisms a substitute for standards set and measured consistently across organisations by a neutral third party. Internal review should be combined with external scrutiny to ensure high quality delivery.

Finally, the report’s position on mandatory standards for the restorative justice field is unclear. It highlights the fact that the lack of mandatory standards means that there is no guaranteed mechanism that ensures quality, stating that: ‘The fact that the RJC’s RSQM is not a mandatory quality assurance requirement, coupled with the lack of any regulated quality assurance revealed that service providers do not need to guarantee a minimum level of service provision’. True, but how should this be addressed? Is a voluntary system of quality assurance sufficient? Or should we move to a system of mandatory regulation? The report doesn’t say.

Overall, this is a welcome contribution to the debate around restorative justice provision. I’m particularly pleased to see many of our own standards reflected in the findings of this report. I’m also pleased that the value of the RSQM has been recognised. And I hope that the next stage of the Victims’ Commissioner’s review will continue to focus attention on the delivery of restorative justice services in a way that helps the whole field to improve what we do.