Chris Grayling's behind-the-scenes attempts to appoint a more pliable prisons inspector could trigger a change in the code of practice for ministerial appointments, following a damning report calling for action to stop it happening again.
The Commons' justice committee raised the alarm when it discovered that both supposedly independent members of the appointment panel for the new chief inspector - Lord Oliver Henley and Amanda Sater - were actually active members of the Tory party. This information was kept from the justice committee. A third member, Antonia Romeo, was former director of criminal justice at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and the figure responsible for Grayling's probation privatisation programme. So out of four panel members, three had a reason to pick someone favourable to the justice secretary.
As if that weren't enough, Grayling then vetoed their suggestion and refused to put forward a candidate who was considered "excellent" by the panel.
The weirdness doesn't stop there, however. I'm told the MoJ's announcement into the extension of the current prison inspector's term was announced today specifically to sabotage the Commons committee report, which was originally timetabled for tomorrow. Instead of waiting for it to come out, Grayling pre-empted it in a bid to minimise the damage. After that, the committee was forced to make its report public immediately.
Alan Beith, chair of the justice committee, said:
"It is unfortunate that the secretary of state did not inform us that both independent members of the appointment panel were active Conservative party members.
"We have been given no convincing reason by Mr Grayling as to why he did not put forward to us for pre-appointment scrutiny a candidate considered 'excellent' by the appointment panel."
It now appears things have got so bad that the commissioner for public appointments, David Normington, is going to take this matter into consideration when he consults into amendments to his Code of Practice for Ministerial Appointments to Public Office. Grayling's increasingly obvious attempts to rig the prison inspection system in his favour may be about to trigger a change in the law in how these sorts of appointments are made.
As Beith said:
"The chief inspector must be seen to be independent from any ministerial or political pressure. On several occasions in the past we have recommended that the chief inspector of prisons be appointed on the recommendation of parliament, not the executive, and this case reinforces our belief that this must happen."
The current chief inspector, Nick Hardwick, has been a remarkably effective scrutiniser of Grayling's prisons policy. He is a bit of a light in the dark in this respect, because all other avenues of scrutiny have been closed down. The MoJ banned journalists from talking to prisoners, it blocked independent inquiries from interviewing inmates, it all-but stopped answering parliamentary questions from the opposition, and it fought off freedom of information requests by refusing to hold any pertinent information centrally.
Only the chief inspector made it through this wall. His reports were increasingly critical, culminating in last's year's annual report in which he singled out current policy as the reason for rising levels of assault and suicide behind bars. Grayling's response was to refuse to renew his contract and demand he reapply for his job. Hardwick rightly responded that he could not go cap-in-hand to those who he was supposed to be scrutinising. He promptly stepped down.
That's when the appointment process became wrapped up in such questionable political manoeuvres. It was stuffed with Tory members and a Grayling loyalist and even then its proposed candidate was vetoed by the secretary of state.
As shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan told Politics.co.uk:
"Not content with effectively sacking the chief inspector of prisons for daring to criticise his government's prisons policy, Chris Grayling has stuffed the appointment panel for the new inspector full of known Tories. It just shows to what lengths this government will go to avoid having their failing policies properly scrutinised. This fails the smell test, and it calls into question how any chief inspector of prisons appointed by this process could ever claim to be independent."
Of course, it is intolerable that the justice secretary should have such influence over the person appointed to scrutinise him. But previous secretaries of state were at least a little more subtle in how they tried to get their favoured individual into the post. Grayling's cack-handedness means we might actually see a change in the law to stop it happening again. For that much, at least, we should be grateful.