MPs raise concerns over independence of inspectors

Prison cell, UK Border Force officer Image copyright PA

The independence of chief inspectors in areas like prisons and the border force could be threatened by the way they are selected and budgets are set, MPs say.

Administration of the five inspectorates in the justice and home affairs sectors is done by ministers in charge of those areas.

The Public Accounts Committee said there was a risk government departments "could use these controls... as levers to influence" the inspectorates.

It wants a review of the arrangements.

The Home Office oversees the chief inspectors of constabulary, and borders and immigration.

The chief inspectors of prisons and probation, are both overseen by the Ministry of Justice, while the Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate is administered by the Attorney General's Office.

The five inspectorates employ about 370 staff and about £20bn of public money is spent each year on the areas they examine.

Margaret Hodge, who chairs the PAC, said: "Independent inspection is essential for enabling Parliament and the public to hold government to account for the performance of vital public services, and identifying areas at risk of failure.

"It is therefore crucial that inspectorates are, and are seen to be, genuinely independent."

Conflict of interest

The PAC called on the Cabinet Office to review whether inspectorates would be better served by independent appointment and sponsorship, and some direct reporting to Parliament.

It also said the inspectorates needed to do more to make sure their own recommendations were being implemented, and work together to tackle issues of common interest, such as reoffending and trafficking.

The cross-party committee addressed two specific incidents.

It said the Ministry of Justice "mishandled an entirely foreseeable conflict of interest" by appointing former Chief Inspector of Probation Paul McDowell in February 2014, because his wife held a senior post in a private provider which later successfully bid for six contracts.

A MoJ spokesman said: "At the time of his appointment, Mr McDowell's position was fully reasonable with all the appropriate pre-appointment processes properly followed."

He said the MoJ would liaise with the Justice Select Committee about the arrangements for the appointment of a new chief inspector of probation.

The PAC report questioned a January 2014 change allowing the home secretary to decide when to issue the border inspector reports, saying this undermined the inspectorate's independence and had resulted in publication delays.

It said the move followed a Home Office interpretation of the UK Borders Act 2007 but there was "contrary legal advice" in existence too.

A Home Office spokeswoman said the move was required because the home secretary had to lay the reports before Parliament but it had since agreed to keep to an eight-week publication timescale.

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