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.