Howard angry over jail watchdog

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The Independent Online
Home Office ministers have again been accused of political interference with appointments to the new independent body set up to investigate prisoners' grievances.

Having taken the highly unusual step of vetoing all candidates shortlisted for the post of the first-ever prison ombudsman because they were considered 'too left-wing', Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, is now unhappy with the credentials of the man appointed as one of his key assistants. Sir Peter Woodhead, the ombudsman finally approved by ministers and due to start work today, has appointed Adam Sampson, the former deputy director of the high-profile pressure group the Prison Reform Trust. Ministers apparently considered terminating Mr Sampson's contract before it even started, but instead Mr Howard and Michael Forsyth, the prisons minister, castigated Brian Caffery, the head of Home Office personnel, over the appointment.

Last year Mr Howard was accused of seeking a Tory 'placeman' for the sensitive prison post after he rejected all three well-qualified candidates shortlisted for the job by the Civil Service Commission. One of them was Stephen Shaw, Mr Sampson's boss at the Prison Reform Trust.

Harry Fletcher, of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: 'The prison ombudsman must be seen to be scrupulously independent to maintain his credibility.' Ministers are wary of the role of ombudsman, because, like that of Judge Stephen Tumim, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, he can cause the Government grave embarrassment. In other countries, such as the US, Canada, and Sweden, ombudsmen have considerable impact in promoting penal reform.

It was after a firm of private headhunters was called in to find candidates that Sir Peter, the retired Nato Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic, was selected as ombudsman last April. Home Office sources suggest he is already proving a little more liberal and independent than the Home Secretary anticipated. Yesterday Sir Peter said: 'The Home Secretary has said nothing to me personally about Adam Sampson's appointment. He was chosen by a Home Office board on his merits and his appointment has given us a better balance.'

A Home Office spokesman last night said the position of ombudsman was referred to ministers. The spokesman refused to comment on claims that Mr Caffery had been castigated or that ministers were unhappy with Mr Sampson's appointment.