Probation inspector at centre of row over wife’s job at outsourcing firm

Paul McDowell’s wife is the deputy managing director of a private justice company that runs some UK probation services
paul mcdowell
Paul McDowell was appointed by the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, to the crucial role of independent chief inspector of probation in November last year. Photograph: Martin Argles for the Guardian
The future of the chief of the probation watchdog has been put into question as a fresh conflict of interest row hit Whitehall.
Paul McDowell, the chief inspector of probation, is at the centre of a row following the disclosure that his wife is the deputy managing director of a private justice company that this week won the largest number of contracts to run probation services in England and Wales.
The disclosure came shortly after Fiona Woolf stepped down as the head of an inquiry into historical child sex abuse after a conflict of interest row.
McDowell was appointed by the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, to the crucial watchdog role last November. He is also a former chief executive of the crime reduction charity Nacro, which, in partnership with his wife Janine’s outsourcing company, Sodexo Justice Services, won six of the 21 regional probation contracts to supervise more than 200,000 offenders each year.
The Sodexo-Nacro partnership was named as preferred bidder to supervise tens of thousands of low- to medium-risk offenders in six parts of England, including in South Yorkshire, Essex, Northumbria, Cumbria and Lancashire, Norfolk and Suffolk, and Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire as part of a £450m-a-year privatisation of 70% of the work of the probation service.
On Friday McDowell said he would not resign, saying that he had declared the conflict of interest when he applied for the £135,000-a-year job and that it could be “managed appropriately” by delegating inspections of the work of his wife’s company and his former charity.
“My wife and I do not discuss issues which it is inappropriate for us to discuss. We are very aware of what is appropriate and what is not,” he interrupted his holiday to tell the Guardian. “We have acted with absolute integrity and professionalism … I will not be got at by anybody.”
But Sir Alan Beith, the chairman of the justice select committee, and the shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, said the disclosure raised serious questions about McDowell’s independence.
Beith is particularly concerned that his committee was not told of Janine McDowell’s leading role in Sodexo when they endorsed her husband as Grayling’s preferred candidate at a special pre-appointment hearing for the job last autumn.
He said: “If the secretary of state was notified at the time of Mr McDowell’s appointment of the close family member, the justice committee should have been told. That interest has now become more significant now that Sodexo, as a preferred bidder, is likely to be directly involved in the provision of probation services with Nacro in six community rehabilitation company areas.”
Beith said that McDowell’s background had meant he was well suited to be a fully independent chief inspector. “The secretary of state and the committee will now need to consider the implications of the interest issue having become much more significant.”
The conflict of interest was not disclosed in either the evidence submitted in a letter by Grayling to the committee, nor in a lengthy CV or in oral evidence. McDowell told the Guardian he could not remember the issue being raised in the hearing and he didn’t think it had been. The committee confirmed on Friday that it had not been disclosed.
Khan said that so far McDowell had been “all but silent” on reports of chaos in the probation service caused by the government’s privatisation programme. “With this information coming to light, some will question whether this silence is because of his links with a company and a charity that has hoovered up big chunks of the privatised probation system.”
On Thursday the justice minister, Simon Hughes, highlighted McDowell’s key role in monitoring Grayling’s shakeup. Hughes denied claims of daily chaos, telling the BBC Today programme: “The independent inspector of probation has alerted us to no concerns that the system isn’t moving across.”
When he appointed McDowell, Grayling said: “We are making radical changes to the rehabilitation of offenders, and we expect HMI Probation to play a vital role in maintaining high standards and shining a light across the new system, helping us to get the best from our crucial reforms.”
Khan said that during a critical period for the probation service it was crucial the chief inspector did his job without fear or favour and independent of government, political parties or big corporate interests.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “The chief inspector of probation did not have any involvement in the procurement of probation services. The terms of his appointment include a commercial confidentiality clause. This includes members of his family.”
Justice ministry sources said McDowell had always been upfront about the professional role of his wife. They also pointed to the legislation on potential or actual conflicts of interest involving chief inspectors which allows them to delegate all their duties, including signing off the report and leading on their media coverage.
Both the MoJ and McDowell believe the issue could be “worked out over the next week or so”.
An MoJ spokesperson said: “Preferred bidders have only just been announced and as with any contract the department will, of course, ensure that any potential conflicts are fully evaluated and appropriate arrangements put in place as necessary.”
McDowell said his role as a watchdog or in producing thematic reports would not be compromised by his withdrawal from inspecting the work done by Sodexo-Nacro. He said he would still be inspecting the work of the remaining 15 community rehabilitation companies, 150 youth offending teams and the rump national probation service.
He insisted that inability to comment on the national probation situation or produce thematic reports would not be compromised as they did not involve assessing the work of an individual supplier.
He said while he was chief executive of Nacro before he became chief inspector in January he had withdrawn from all discussions about a possible partnership with Sodexo and the negotiations had all been conducted by his chairman.
The McDowells met while both were in the prison service. Paul was at one point governor of the public-sector Brixton prison, while Janine, was the director of the Sodexo-run Bronzefield women’s prison in west London.
Rob Allen, a prisons and probation expert, said: “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.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *