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.
It's now a truism to call George Osborne an intensely political chancellor, but that does not stop it being true. He was and remains a man who views all ideas through the prism of the Tory party's electoral fortunes. But today's impressively-delivered Budget shows he has matured in how he plays that game. This was a much smarter and more mature political attack than the chancellor had previously offered.
Osborne had a few extra billion to play with due to shares from Lloyds, Northern Rock and Bradford and Bingley, as well as low inflation and reduced benefit bills. Even as recently as last October, the chancellor would likely have splurged it on tax bribes for his core voters. After all, that's what Cameron was doing during his last conference speech, with £7 billion in uncosted tax reductions, being pulled out the hat at the last moment. It seemed as if their nervousness over fleeing voters meant the Tories were prepared to sacrifice their central message of financial responsibility.
Instead, Osborne today pledged to put that money towards deficit reduction, trading weaponised electoral bribes for a reinforcement of the Tories' image.
This was not some new epiphany of responsibility. It was as political as usual. It allowed Osborne to counter Ed Miliband's claims that he planned to slash public spending to the levels of the 1930s. This Wigan Pier attack clearly spooked the chancellor, because he neutered it completely. Instead, spending levels will approximate Britain circa 2000, the last year, in the chancellor's historical account, in which Britain still had control of its spending (he supported Labour spending plans long after that, but that's been written out of the official record).
"A state neither smaller than we need, nor larger than we can afford," the chancellor said, with a flourish. It was a vision far removed from the massive cuts Osborne once proposed for after the election, all of which were due to take place without any tax rises to offset the impact on public spending.
From then on, the chancellor went through his list diligently, ticking off potential Labour attacks one by one. He reduced the lifetime pension allowance to £1 million, forcing Ed Balls to find a new way to fund Labour's promised tuition fee cut. He initiated a review into using deeds of variation to dodge inheritance tax – a tactic once used by the Miliband's family (although they insist they paid all the appropriate tax). He said inequality was lower than in 2010, that living standards were higher, that satisfaction with public services was rising.
Regardless of the truth of these claims, they were plainly designed as neat economic packages for Tories to use on the doorstep, a how-to guide for dismantling Labour's election message and turning the fire on Miliband.
Osborne deserves some credit for maintaining discipline so close to polling day. He sacrificed individual potential benefits for the overall story he wanted to tell. By ploughing that money into deficit reduction, he shored up his core narrative: responsibility during times of crisis, a steady hand on the tiller. Meanwhile, with that image preserved, he went behind the scenes and did all the tinkering necessary to eliminate Labour's counter-attacks. Was it cynical? Yes. But it was also very successful.
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."