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Reputation risk being put before individuals, says England's Chief Inspector of Prisons at BASW England Conference

A “damaging” culture has evolved in public service where risk to reputation is being put before risk to individuals, England’s Chief Inspector of Prisons warned.

Speaking at BASW England’s Conference and Annual Meeting, Nick Hardwick blamed the trend on a “default” position of scapegoating professions when things go wrong.

Mr Hardwick said: “There is a culture around risk that is very damaging because when people talk about managing risks now, very often they are not talking about managing the risk to the individual using their service, they are talking about managing the reputational risk to the organisation itself.”

Using examples from the prison service, he warned focusing on managing reputation risk might free organisations from blame, but increased the danger to individuals.

In the first example he highlighted there was a reluctance in many institutions to release inmates back into the community under temporary licence and aid integration.

“The failure rate is actually very low, but some high profile cases have led to very serious crimes that had terrible impact on victims. The reaction to that is to go too far in clamping down with the consequence that the reputation of the prison is protected, but the risk to you the public has increased. I you are not preparing properly for release and they are let out of prison without supervision, if they commit an offence there is much less chance it will get picked up.”

Another example Mr Hardwick highlighted was how a positve trend of a dramatic fall in youth custody had led to closure of institutions meaning the most troubled youngsters were being concentrated in fewer centres further from their homes.

“Gradually we are seeing them getting locked down. They are spending longer isolated, segregated, in cell confinement. We are containing them, but in terms of doing work that will reduce the risk of them reoffending or doing harm to themselves or others, that work is getting less and less. So the risk is getting displaced.”

Mr Hardwick urged public services to learn from the aviation and health sectors, where the “Swiss cheese” approach to risk management is employed. The model sees multiple layers or slices acting as barriers to hazard in which holes in the cheese are weak points.

“If you are lucky the holes won’t line up,” said Mr Hardwick. “If you are unlucky it lines up so the hazard can go through all the holes and ends up in a catastrophe, a disaster.”

He warned cuts to public services had heightened the risk of hazards falling through the holes by removing some of the barriers.

“Whatever is the answer to that, it is not right to put the blame on the social worker or police officer or prison officer who is that last barrier and left holding the ball because of the weaknesses and the loss of other barriers of protection," he stressed.

Mr Hardwick urged people to read the Francis report following the inquiry into patient deaths due to failings at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust.

The report says: “Patients were routinely neglected by a trust that was preoccupied with cost-cutting, targets and processes and lost sight of its fundamental responsibility to provide safe care”.