When Chief Inspector of Probation Paul McDowell’s links with Sodexo became public last October, it was pretty obvious he would have to quit sooner or later. How could he be possibly be seen as an “independent and authoritative source of fair comment” on Probation when his household income might depend in part on his judgments? When Ministers made it clear that it was to him that they looked for any warnings that the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms might be in trouble, his number was up.
It’s a disaster that he delayed until yesterday his decision to go. Had he departed three months ago, progress could have been made to recruiting a replacement. As things stand, Probation is undergoing the most fundamental and most controversial changes in its history with a much weaker level of scrutiny than is needed. To its credit the Inspectorate called some major risks and challenges in their report on the early implementation of Transforming Rehabilitation in December. Their report concluded that “what happens in this next period of implementation, and particularly the way it is led and managed, is crucial to ensuring the longer-term development of quality and innovation in Probation that the public expects”. Given the concerns that both the National Probation Service and Community Rehabilitation Companies are under prepared and under funded for the changes that came into force on Sunday, the lack of a high profile independent monitor could not have come at a worse time.
Although Chris Grayling said yesterday that the appropriate pre-appointment processes were followed when McDowell got the job, something went badly wrong. The Justice Committee claim they were not told about his conflict of interest when they interviewed him in 2013. But did they ask? Much more robust scrutiny is needed of this and similar appointments in future. Paul is a former Chief Executive of NACRO. Arguably this provides an additional conflict of interest, since the charity will henceforth play a major role in the probation landscape alongside, as it happens Sodexho. While the success of the Sodexo/ NACRO partnership in winning CRC contracts could not be foreseen when Paul was appointed, their interest in bidding was well known.
In the future, the Probation Inspector should be drawn from outside the fields they inspect. This has always been the case with the Chief Inspector of Prisons, a post for which the Ministry of Justice is currently seeking a successor to Nick Hardwick.
The advertisement for that post makes it clear that the MoJ “would particularly welcome applications from those currently working in, or with experience of, the private sector, and those who have not previously held public appointments”. That’s fine as long as there are much more rigorous checks in place to ensure that candidates and their families for these and similar posts are independent not only from the services they inspect but from the companies that increasingly provide them.