Nick Hardwick: 'Why have we put 85,000 people in jail?'

Nick Hardwick asked some tough questions as head of the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Now he intends to do the same as Chief Inspector of Prisons, he tells Robert Verkaik
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Nick Hardwick strolls into an empty office in Westminster cradling a blue coffee mug given to him by the New York Police Department. A week after taking up his post as Chief Inspector of Prisons, the treasured gift appears to be the only personal possession that has found its way from the High Holborn headquarters of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), where Mr Hardwick was in charge for the last six years.

It may be unintended, but the message is clear – the new prisons watchdog comes with a formidable background in investigation. Mr Hardwick, 53, was given the mug when he was on a fact-finding visit to New York in the months before Labour replaced the failing Police Complaints Authority with the IPCC in 2004.

He says the American experience was a lesson in how not to set up an independent police investigatory body. "It was simply not credible that the police were left to investigate the serious allegations while the independent police body should look at the more minor complaints," he says. "There was a complete lack of transparency and it was very clear to me what the problem was."

It was an experience which stood him in good stead and helped the IPCC survive its greatest test – the investigation into the shooting of Brazilian civilian Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell underground station in 2005. Mr Hardwick is in no doubt that this was the most critical moment during his tenure at the IPCC. "If we had failed it would have shown that we could not investigate the most serious of cases."

Mr Hardwick put himself in charge of overseeing the investigation into what went wrong and immediately found himself at odds with the then Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Ian Blair, who did not want the IPCC to investigate the police. At stake was the independence of the organisation which Mr Hardwick had fought so hard to protect.

"Blair said, 'We are not going to let you investigate this'. He rang me up and told me what he had decided to do, and followed that up with a letter to the Home Office." Mr Hardwick stood firm and Sir Ian's request was unequivocally rejected by the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police Authority.

"Blair made a big mistake – I'm still not clear why he did it. The reason he gave was that we would be obliged to give information to the family that would be problematic to his own investigation. But he was wrong – we didn't have to give that information. He just didn't want us investigating."

At the IPCC, Mr Hardwick has been in a unique position to see just how the law, and particularly the police, can fail people who might end up in prison. Some may accuse him of being a liberal reformer looking to pour scorn on the penal system and empty the prisons of criminals. But that would be to fundamentally misunderstand the new prisons watchdog.

Mr Hardwick's lasting impression from six years investigating the police is not simply that they can get it badly wrong, but that for every crime committed there is a victim. He says the case of Fiona Pilkington, who killed herself and her disabled daughter after years of abuse by youths, is a worrying illustration of what happens when low-level criminals are not effectively dealt with.

But in the highly charged debate around penal reform, Mr Hardwick believes that the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke is taking the right approach. Mr Clarke has angered sections of the Conservative Party, most notably Michael Howard, by suggesting that prison doesn't work.

When Mr Hardwick left his post at the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders in the mid-1980s, prison numbers were heading up towards 40,000. "I remember people saying what an awful thing that was. So how can it be now that prison numbers are 85,000? Has there been some explosion in crime?... Why are we spending all that money? Doesn't there have to be some evidence that it works?"

He argues for an evidenced-based approach to tackling prison and non-custodial sentences. "On the one hand you have got numbers going up and on the other you have resources going down, so something is going to have to give, because that is not sustainable. My first impressions are that when you go around prison you see a lot of young men sitting around doing relatively short sentences with nothing to do, bored witless. That can't be in the interests of turning people out who will then be less likely to offend. These are some of the obvious things that Ken Clarke has put his finger on."

But not everything the Government is proposing for the re-balancing of the criminal justice system meets with Mr Hardwick's approval. He warns that government plans for US-style elected police commissioners may increase the risk of corruption. "It's not corruption that is cyclical but our response to it," he says. "In other words it's always there; it just depends what public appetite there is to turn over the stones and look for it. It's important to have greater accountability, and let's see how the Tory plans work out."

He adds: "One of the things they have to manage is the corruption risk. What is an elected official's appetite for dealing with corruption? Because all you get is bad news, grief, [and] it costs them a lot of money. It will be important that resources are protected for dealing with corruption. It's often happening behind the scenes – it's not about bobbies on the beat. When it does come to light it gives you bad news. History has taught that it is very important that you have a real consistent pressure to deal with that."

Nonetheless, he says, the threat of corruption does not mean the Government should not go ahead with elected police chiefs. "There may be a risk [that] the relationship between the police chief and the elected official becomes improper. That needs to be managed carefully in any legislation that they bring forward."

He argues that in the cases of Fiona Pilkington and Ian Tomlinson – a newspaper vendor who died during the G20 protests in London after being shoved by an officer – show there is a case for making the police more accountable. And he agrees with David Cameron's comments about unelected heads of quangos.

"I've always felt uncomfortable about this. It's not for quango heads to say what politics should be. At the end of the day I think elected politicians trump unelected quangos. Some of the issues that came to the IPCC are better answered by politicians, because if you don't like their answers you can always vote them out – you didn't have that option with me."

In the last few weeks, Mr Hardwick's focus on criminal justice has shifted from the failings of the police to those of the penal system. He says he will build on the work of his predecessor, Dame Anne Owers, who was greatly concerned about the rehabilitation of offenders both in and out of prison.

"It can't be sensible to turn people out of prison who are more likely to commit offences than when they went in," he argues. "So work and purposeful activities are key. A big question to ask in terms of the sentencing option that the courts have is whether the community alternatives are effective and carry public confidence."

Countering the expectations of those who accuse him of being soft on criminals, he says that the public must not lose sight of the fact that prison is a punishment. "Some people undoubtedly make other people's lives a misery, are dangerous, and need to be locked up."