UK Politics

Chief Inspector of Prisons post raises MPs' concerns

Nick Hardwick Image copyright HM Inspectorate of Prisons
Image caption Nick Hardwick is stepping down as chief inspector of prisons later this year

The appointments process for a new prisons inspector in England and Wales has raised the concerns of MPs.

The Justice Select Committee said it was not disclosed that two of the panel's independent members were active members of the Conservative Party.

And it criticised the justice secretary for not putting forward a candidate rated as "excellent" by the panel.

The Ministry of Justice said the recruitment process was run in line with the code of practice.

The two Conservatives on the four-strong panel were Lord Henley, a former Home Office minister, and Youth Justice Board member Amanda Sater, who was last year named as woman's adviser to Tory party chairman Grant Shapps.

The cross-party committee's report into the process to appoint outgoing prisons inspector Nick Hardwick's successor said the post should be filled on the recommendation of parliament, not the government.

'Unfortunate'

Chairman Sir Alan Beith, a Lib Dem, said the post holder must be seen to be independent from ministerial or political pressure.

Public Appointments Commissioner Sir David Normington said this and a number of other cases meant he would be recommending a change in the rules to panel membership after the general election.

Image caption Sir Alan's committee criticised the processes followed after a decision was taken not to re-appoint Mr Hardwick

"It does not aid public confidence in the public appointments process to have an independent member who is an active member of a political party or indeed to have two panel members, who are so politically associated with the government," he said.

Sir Alan said the committee "fully accept" Lord Henley and Ms Sater operated within the code, "and we make no criticism of them".

But it was "unfortunate" that the committee had not been informed by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling they were active party members.

'No convincing reason'

The current chief inspector's term expires this July but he is to stay on until a successor has been found.

The committee said it had been expecting to receive information about the outcome of the recruitment process in time to hold a pre-appointment hearing on 17 March.

But on 11 March Mr Grayling wrote to them to say that, although the panel had approved one individual, he was not prepared to propose them "in the absence of a wider pool of candidates from which to select".

Image copyright PA
Image caption The prisons inspector warned of a "rapid deterioration" in prison safety in England and Wales, last year

Sir Alan said Mr Grayling had not offered a "convincing reason" for his decision.

"The chief inspector of prisons, and the inspectorate which he leads, are vital in assessing standards of safety, security and decency in prisons.

"The chief inspector must be seen to be independent from any ministerial or political pressure."

'Effectively sacked'

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: "The selection panel and process... was completely run in line with the commissioner for public appointments' code of practice.

"It is good practice to provide the minister with a choice of candidates to select from and we are grateful to Nick Hardwick for agreeing to extend his appointment while this process takes place."

A government source added: "The committee can't have it both ways, both criticising the selection panel and then criticising the government for not accepting its recommendation.

"The panel was made up of experienced people. We aren't going to appoint someone until we are sure we have the best candidate."

Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said Mr Hardwick was "effectively sacked for daring to tell the truth about the prisons crisis", adding "it's not surprising nobody seems to want the job".

"This is a critical role, and if the public are to have confidence in our jail system there needs to be a strong, independent chief inspector in post to hold the government to account," he said.

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