The justice secretary, Michael Gove, has been censured for personally ringing up prospective candidates for the posts of chief inspectors of prisons and probation to encourage them to apply for the jobs.
The Commons justice select committee says it was “unwise for the secretary of state to ring prospective candidates” when “there should be no perception that either chief inspector is beholden to the minister [responsible] … for those services”.
The strongly worded rebuke to Gove is coupled with concerns that the justice secretary’s preferred candidate for the £130,000-a-year job of chief inspector of prisons, Peter Clarke, a former Scotland Yard head of counter-terrorism, has such “slender experience and knowledge” of the prison system that a handover period should be arranged with the current chief inspector, Nick Hardwick.
The MPs say Clarke, who has not been inside a prison for nine years, will “face a major challenge to bring himself swiftly up to speed in order to command widespread public confidence”.
Gove rang prospective candidates out of the blue soon after the general election, before the two posts were advertised. Gove knew Clarke from his time as education secretary when he asked the retired senior police officer to investigate the Trojan Horse allegations of Islamist extremism in Birmingham schools.
He rang Glenys Stacey, the outgoing head of school exams watchdog Ofqual, to encourage her to apply for the post of chief inspector of probation.
The row over the appointments follows the resignation last year of Paul McDowell as chief inspector of probation after it was disclosed that his wife runs a private probation company that won six of the 23 probation contracts in England and Wales.
The MPs on the Conservative-chaired committee said the latest episode demonstrated that the independence of the two watchdog roles should be enhanced by making them parliamentary rather than ministerial appointments.
The justice select committee report concludes: “They are posts whose occupants must arrive at independent and evidence-based judgments on the performance of the bodies required to deliver effective, lawful and humane custodial and probation services in the criminal justice system, and there should be no perception that either chief inspector is beholden to the minister with overall responsibility to parliament and the public for these services.”
The MPs also raise concerns that the three-year contracts for the two jobs may be too short to enable their holders to develop and exercise full authority, especially as neither preferred candidate has recent experience of prisons or probation. They say that if they were five-year contracts it would enable the chief inspectors to apply for extensions without worrying about challenging the incumbent justice secretary.
After it emerged that Gove had personally rung both candidates, the Ministry of Justice sent the MPs an email on Wednesday saying that in line with the official code of practice the justice secretary had suggested various potential candidates, including Clarke and Stacey. Officials and headhunters also spoke to potential candidates.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said the report made clear the MPs were “satisfied that the process had been conducted in accordance with the appropriate guidance and principles of fair and open competition”.
The spokesperson said: “The committee said it had been provided with all the information it needed and concluded that both Peter Clarke and Glenys Stacey are appointable candidates. The secretary of state is now considering the committee’s report and we will announce next steps in due course.”
This article was written by Alan Travis Home affairs editor, for theguardian.com on Friday 27th November 2015 15.51 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010