By Sarah Aston

14 Oct 2015

The controversial privatisation of probation services is no “omnishambles”, interim chief inspector Paul Wilson tells Sarah Aston. But he does worry that resource pressures could lead to a repeat of the Daniel Sonnex tragedy

Arriving at the Ministry of Justice to meet interim chief inspector of probation Paul Wilson, one thing is on CSW’s mind. With the sixth season of the BBC’s Great British Bake Off still in full flow, CSW wants to know if the chief inspector – who, bar a five-year stint in the private sector, has spent his 40 year career in probation – has ever met Paul, the prison governor who baked his way into the quarter finals of the show? 

“Is he the one with the beard?” Wilson asks, before revealing he has never met the culinary governor. His wife watches the show, but he apparently only catches it from time to time. That’s perhaps unsurprising, given the daunting workload Wilson inherited after stepping into the chief inspector role in February – a post he will remain in while the government searches for a permanent replacement for Paul McDowell, who was forced to resign over criticism of his personal relationship with MoJ outsourcing bidder Sodexo-Nacro. 

A veteran in his field, Wilson joined the profession at 21 as a probation officer (“After university, I carried on doing a ‘vacation job’ in catering, but then I met the person who was going to become my wife and she was already a qualified teacher so I thought, I really ought to get a ‘proper’ job”) and has led probation services up and down the country, as well as serving as a non-executive director at the National Offender Management Service. 

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In his current role, Wilson is not only overseeing a shakeup of the inspectorate’s model, but is also responsible for ensuring the comprehensive Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) reforms maintain probation standards. Introduced in April 2015, the reform programme has seen the privatisation of almost 70% of probation services, splitting offender management between privately owned Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) and the National Probation Service (NPS).

It’s a challenging task, given the apparent unpopularity of the reform programme. In April 2014, probation staff around the country went on strike over the changes and penal reform campaigners have continued to express concerns. “It is absolutely true that the reforms were very unpopular, of course they were – it’s a huge amount of disruption,” Wilson says. 

This is picked up in the chief inspector’s annual report – published in August – in which Wilson said there are “significant operational and information sharing concerns across the boundaries of the National Probation Service and Community Rehabilitation Companies”. However, the report went on to conclude that “transitional” problems could be resolved with “time and continuing goodwill”.

“There are still significant numbers of staff who retain that optimism, and hope that, freed from some of the bureaucracy of the public sector, they will be able to exercise more professional judgement and get more job satisfaction,” Wilson explains. 

“For all we have reported on real issues around practice, it is true to say that the wheels are not coming off the probation service. It is withstanding this change process very well indeed and performance for the most part is standing up. Omnishambles this is not.”

When he speaks about the reform programme, Wilson’s tone is generally sanguine. Yet he does accept there have been real challenges in delivering it, and concedes that, in some cases, concerns over privatising offender management are valid. These concerns have been supported by his inspections. 

Among the biggest changes are the decision to outsource the majority of cases – CRCs are now responsible for all low-medium risk cases, while the NPS handles the high risk cases – and the move to introduce a payment-by-results framework for CRCs. One campaign group told CSW this framework raises questions about the incentives behind managing caseloads, as there is a risk companies might focus on “easy” cases to ensure payment, or fail to escalate those deemed a “high risk” to the NPS for fear of losing money. Is Wilson worried about these scenarios? 

“The idea of perverse incentives has been an issue since payments-by-results was mooted in the coalition government,” Wilson acknowledges. “There is a concern about getting the allocation system right. There are major teething issues around that process – that absolutely cannot be denied – but that’s not a failure of policy or probation instruction, it’s an issue around the time and the priority that practitioners actually have in the heat of the courtroom and the 24 to 48 hour turnaround that follows the court’s decision.” 

“We simply can’t know the answer to those questions yet. In my annual report I said that I thought it would be two or three years before the system is settled and the data is reliable enough to make judgements about that sort of thing,” he says.

“On social media that was characterised, I think, as me saying: “Well, fingers crossed!” he adds wryly. 

“It’s not that for a minute, it is just it would be wrong to leap to conclusions at this point in time before the system is anything like mature.” 

Likewise, when asked if he believes companies will use the need for commercial confidentiality to block inspection work into key areas of service delivery, the probation watchdog says that, while he does not think it will be a problem, it is too soon to tell. 

“I think it has been a reality in one or two sets of circumstances in which the inspectorate has been involved, but as we engage with CRCs, I’m for the most part reassured that the new companies see a bigger picture than that, and are prepared to share what they are doing and their data and information, and will do so into the future,” he says. 

“I understand the issue, but I think it’s far too soon to be pessimistic about the way CRCs will respond. Overall, we have to hope everyone invests in the probation system, and sees that, actually, all the organisations are still very much connected. I’m still optimistic about the ability of the whole system to work across the board.”

While Wilson remains hopeful about the success of the reforms, one area he is decidedly less assured about is the impact of any further cuts as a result of the austerity agenda. And while all Whitehall departments and arm’s length bodies are facing spending challenges, Wilson has seen first hand the consequences resource pressures can have on the probation service. In 2009, he was appointed chief probation officer in London – a role that no-one wanted – immediately after Daniel Sonnex murdered two French students when on probation. 

“Sonnex was a serious offender, and at the time the murders happened, he was supervised by a young, inexperienced probation officer with a ridiculous workload of about 120 cases, line managed by an inexperienced temporary senior probation officer and a remote senior manager. It was absolutely awful, it shouldn’t have happened,” he says. 

While the Sonnex incident was a result of poor local management of people and resources, rather than budget cuts, for Wilson there is a lesson to be learnt. 

“If I can make a link between the Sonnex case and Transforming Rehabilitation – it’s right that from a neutral position I remain optimistic about what may be achieved under TR, but I do have a worry. We are in times of austerity and this government wants more for less, and the new CRCs have a bottom line in relation to costs and profit. In that context, I am worried about the prospects for staff and the future staffing levels and I fear the Sonnex scenario being recreated with inexperienced staff, possibly less trained and qualified than they were before, with larger caseloads, managed and supervised by more remote managers.

“That is my fear. It is no more than a fear – there is no evidence at the moment that that is definitely going to happen, but that would be my fear and I’ve already started a process of drawing ministers’ and others’ attention to that because, by the time it is either disproved or becomes a reality, I won’t be sitting in this chair.”

Wilson plans to step down in February 2016, by which time he thinks the new permanent chief inspector will be in post. At 65, he is looking forward to his retirement. Although he may not be entering any baking competitions, the chief inspector does intend to make the most of his leisure time. 

“I’ve got three children, the oldest lives in the States and he and his partner have just had a baby, so part of the plan is to spend more time in California. That will be hard won’t it?” he laughs.

Yet, while this will be his “last full-time senior management or executive position”, he doesn’t plan on leaving the arena completely. “At the beginning, as a young probation officer, there is no doubt I was driven by the belief that probation could help people, and help offenders, to turn their lives around,” he says. “I still absolutely believe that in my heart.” 

...being London’s chief probation officer after the Sonnex case
“The reason I was asked to go and do the job – originally for a few months – was that no-one else wanted it, because it was so tough. My proudest achievement, I think, is that I did enough to make it an attractive job for other very able and talented people after I left. In the space of two years we were able to get trust status, which was the prize at the time.”

...changing the inspection model
“When TR was devised, the deal with the CRCs was that they would be less constrained by old policies and practices. 
In light of that, the inspection regime had to focus more on outcomes and reoffending rates than it did in the past, where there was more of a concern for quality processes. That’s been an interesting journey for the inspectorate. We have got to the point where we are already piloting our new quality and impact inspection model, and we think we’ve got the right balance: the best of the old, but fit for purpose in relation to the new. There is much less emphasis on ‘have you done this, that and the other to the required standard?’ and more on the question ‘have you made a positive impact on this offender?’ and ‘explain to us how you did it’.” 

...what the private sector experience gave him
“There are many people in the public sector who still characterise this new world of outsourcing probation services as ‘public service good, private sector bad’. I mean, that simply has not been my experience of working in the private sector, and working with private sector companies. It is far too simplistic. I think it’s that level of understanding, the ability to explain that good values don’t belong just in one place, that I’ve bought with me, and that has been the most valuable lesson.”

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