Thursday, 30 October 2014

Is Inspectorate up to the task of alerting Ministers to risks of Probation reforms?

 This morning, Justice Minister Simon Hughes defended the government’s probation reforms. He used three main arguments, all highly questionable.
First he claimed that Transforming Rehabilitation has been undertaken “deliberatively” and over an appropriate time scale. Yes there has been consultation but it is hard to see much evidence of how   debate has influenced the shape of the programme.  And the timescale has been widely criticised as too rushed, dictated by the need to sign the contracts ahead of the election. Even new providers are concerned about the pace. Only half-jokingly, a senior representative of one told me recently that there was only one thing more worrying than losing out in the bidding process and that was winning the contracts.

Hughes’s second contention was that the reforms had been piloted. This is a half- truth at best. Yes there has been piloting of post release supervision of short term prisoners which seems to have shown positive results. Payment by Results has been tested in a number of contexts.  But just as trying out new computer programmes is of limited relevance if you are planning to change the whole operating system, so there is a good deal of uncertainty about how the moving parts in the new probation machinery will actually mesh together. Yes that new system has been running for a few months; not before time, it looks as if a court of law will judge on the reasonableness of such a wholesale reorganisation given the risks that have been widely identified.

But perhaps Hughes most interesting point was that the independent inspector has alerted us to “no concerns that the system isn't moving across”. In fact the Chief Inspector of Probation wrote in his most recent annual report that “like all significant change programmes the transitional phase of Transforming Rehabilitation carries inevitable heightened risk.” But to be fair to Paul McDowell’s position, he recognises “the opportunity to innovate, to think afresh, and to make a significant impact on reoffending outcomes”. 

If Ministers are to look to the Chief Inspector to alert them to problems, it is obviously important that the office is structured to do that effectively, impartially and independently. In the case of HM Inspectorate of Prisons, the Chief Inspector is always appointed from outside the prison service to give that assurance. Moreover, the Prison Inspectorate website contains a register of interests for the Chief Inspector. On it, Nick Hardwick reports that he has a close relative who works for the Metropolitan Police service.

In the case of the Chief Inspector of Probation, there is no requirement that the post holder is drawn from outside the service which he or she inspects. Most have been former senior probation staff.  Paul is a former Chief Executive of NACRO, the charity which will henceforth play a major role in the probation landscape which he will inspect. NACRO (for whom incidentally I worked from 1989 to 2000) has been named as the preferred bidder in six Community Rehabilitation Company areas.

NACRO’s partner is Sodexo, whose deputy managing director is Janine McDowell, who is a close relative of Paul.  I have no reason at all to question the integrity of either Paul or Janine, whom I have met, like and respect as professionals. But I do think there is a potential for a perceived if not actual conflict of interest. It needs addressing at the very least by greater transparency and in future by recruiting Chief Inspectors from outside the world of  probation and community rehabilitation companies.  

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Conference Calls : What the Parties had to say about Prisons

 As the conference season finally comes to an end, what have  the various parties said they have in store for the criminal justice and prison system? Most attention has been paid to Tory plans to limit the writ of the ECHR; no votes for prisoners, fewer hurdles to extradition and whole life sentences all feature in their  promised land freed from  the Human Rights Act and less fettered by Strasbourg judgements . So too do measures to reduce diversion from prosecution and extend honesty in sentencing (which will add at least 1000 to the prison population in the long run).

Chris Grayling’s speech also set out a more nuanced –some might say  contradictory- vision for the prison system; cheaper but with more work and education, less like a holiday camp but better able to meet mental health care needs, stricter but with improved resettlement and mentoring. But aside from the not inconsiderable matter of weakening human rights protections for prisoners, there was little new in the conservative platform and no prospect of relief for the ailing prison service or retreat from the sale of probation.

Not surprisingly, Grayling’s somewhat pollyannish view of the state of the prisons was criticised by his Labour shadow Sadiq Khan who cited the Chief Inspector’s picture of a system on the edge of collapse.  Labour plan a victims law, the revival of their unimplemented 2001 commitment to extend the role of the Youth Justice Board to 18-21’s, and, it seems, the devolution of youth custody budgets to local authorities to incentivise further falls in its use.  But with what looks like a firm pledge to scrap Police and Crime Commissioners, their preferred shape for local arrangements to govern criminal justice remain unclear, as do their intentions in respect of the soon to be privatised probation service.

It was left to two other parties to address the elephants in the penal policy room. As one might have hoped, Simon Hughes pointed out that the key problem is that we lock up too many people in the first place. He identified the need for alternative sanctions for those receiving short sentences, people who have drugs for personal use, the mentally ill who need treatment and for women.  A stronger advisory council on drugs and a new women's justice board were promised. Of course the Lib Dems record in the last four years has not achieved much along these lines as part of a government which has, as Grayling boasted, locked up more people, for longer, more cheaply. 

More surprising was the contribution of UKIP. They of course would move faster than anyone to get rid of the ECHR altogether and historically have taken a tough line on penal policy. Their 2010 manifesto promised to double prison capacity. Their Justice and Home Affairs lead Diane James told this year’s conference of the need for a full costed analysis of the prison system and, paradoxically, to learn lessons from abroad in reforming it. In their hands such an exercise would almost certainly be a disaster. For abroad they seem to have the USA in mind and their preference might well be for a wholly privatised system. But they do at least acknowledge the problems in prisons and the need for a comprehensive review.