Article updated - see below
The last prison inspector felt he was pressured out of the job because he was too critical of government. Now it seems plans are afoot to prevent his replacement being of a similar disposition.
Details have been released of the selection panel for the new inspector and one name stands out: Lord Oliver Henley, former Tory minister at the Home Office and Defra under the coalition, as well as serving in numerous government roles under Margaret Thatcher and John Major. The idea that Lord Oliver would make an impartial assessor of candidates is not credible.
He is one of two 'independent' panel members, alongside Amanda Sater, a member of the youth justice board. The rest of the panel is filled out by Antonia Romeo, former director of criminal justice at the Ministry of Justice, who oversaw justice secretary Chris Grayling's chaotic privatisation of the probation service, and Dame Anne Pringle, a public appointment assessor nominated by the commissioner for public appointments.
With one former Tory minister teamed up with a Grayling loyalist, the odds are stacked against anyone with critical faculties securing the position.
This is not a coincidence. Former inspector Nick Hardwick's reports into the decline of the prison estate were one of the only ways to get information about what was going on in the nation's prisons, given the draconian restrictions on journalists or campaigners speaking to inmates. Hardwick was incensed by the 69% rise of suicides in prison – a rise which coincided with the twin disaster of slashed prison budgets and ever-more inmates being crammed into the system.
His last annual report, released in October, described a "significant decline in safety", a steep rise in assaults and the "loss of more experienced staff" due to cuts.
The report also went about as far as Hardwick could safely go in blaming Grayling directly. He wrote:
"Increases in self-inflicted deaths, self-harm and violence cannot be attributed to a single cause. They reflect some deep-seated trends and affect prisons in both the public and private sectors. Nevertheless, in my view, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the conjunction of resource, population and policy pressures, particularly in the second half of 2013-14 and particularly in adult male prisons, was a very significant factor for the rapid deterioration in safety and other outcomes we found as the year progressed." [italics added]
In response, Grayling announced publicly that he would not renew Hardwick's contract, which runs out in July, and instead demanded that he re-apply for the job.
This was not unexpected. Prison inspectors often have a difficult relationship with the government, although not all ministers are so disreputable in how they deal with them. Dame Anne Owers still had her contract extended and served two five-year terms, despite being very critical of the government. Lord Ramsbotham did not – a fact which probably owed something to his strained relationship with a succession of home secretaries (this is in the days before the creation of the Ministry of Justice).
Hardwick opted not to reapply for the job, saying:
"Told MoJ ministers & officials I won't be reapplying for my post. Can't be independent of people you are asking for a job."
Grayling insisted the re-advertising process was par for the course, but no-one doubts he wanted Hardwick gone. This selection panel is likely to deliver someone more to his liking.
Time is running out for the panel to select the new inspector. They only have until purdah, so the clock is really ticking. There are rumours - so far unconformed - that they have been unable to find anyone. It seems Hardwick is certainly going to stay in place until July, due to the difficulties in finding a replacement.
Hardwick's term has now been extended after the committee failed to find a suitable candidate. The Ministry of Justice put out a statement saying:
"Nick Hardwick’s appointment as HM Chief Inspector of Prisons has been extended in order to allow the recruitment process for his successor to be re-run.
"Justice secretary Chris Grayling has confirmed to the justice select committee that he will not be proposing a preferred candidate to them as there was not a wide enough pool of candidates from which to select.
"The committee had been due to hold a pre-appointment hearing with the preferred candidate later this month, with Mr Hardwick’s fixed term originally due to end in July 2015."
Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan told Politics.co.uk:
"Given the current chief inspector of prisons was effectively sacked for daring to tell the truth about the prisons crisis created by David Cameron’s government, why would anyone want the job? The impression Chris Grayling has given is sycophants need only apply! But 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."