'Fix' row over prisons job

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The Independent Online
THE HOME Secretary, Michael Howard, is considering making a Tory peer and former Home Office minister, Lord Elton, the first 'independent' ombudsman for prisoners. Lord Elton's application for the post is sure to increase controversy over the filling of government jobs by Tory 'placemen'.

Last year Mr Howard was accused of naked party-politicking after he rejected three candidates shortlisted by the Civil Service Commission because they were 'too left-wing'.

Eton-educated Lord Elton, who has been a Conservative whip in the House of Lords and was a Home Office minister between 1984 and 1985, said last week: 'I have put in for the job. I do not want to say anything more about it.'

The Home Office said that there were other candidates and that no decision on the appointment had yet been taken.

The creation of the post

of ombudsman was a key recommendation of Lord Justice Woolf's report into the Strangeways jail riot of 1990. Lord Woolf emphasised that prisoners needed to feel the system was just if violence was to be avoided.

But the post of ombudsman has remained unfilled and controversy about alleged attempts to 'fix' the appointment has been growing.

It was advertised last April and interviews followed standard Whitehall procedure. An eminently respectable Civil Service Commission panel, consisting of Mary Tuck, former head of research at the Home Office, Terry Platt, a Home Office under-secretary, and Michael Geddes, a commissioner, presented a shortlist of three to Mr Howard, but he rejected it out of hand and refused to see the candidates.

The job was readvertised - but this time in the Daily Telegraph rather than the Guardian. Coopers & Lybrand, a management consultancy with no experience of prisons, was asked to find new candidates.

The three applicants rejected by Mr Howard were Professor Rod Morgan, professor of law at Bristol University, who was put on the Woolf inquiry by the Government; Professor Sean McConville, a visiting fellow at Oxford University, who has written in favour of prison privatisation; and Stephen Shaw, director of the Prison Reform Trust pressure group which has all-party support.

Lord Elton is a left-wing Conservative who is not a law- and-order hardliner. Paul Cavadino, spokesman for the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, said yesterday: 'He's a perfectly decent man, but the way this appointment has been handled obviously raises a great deal of concern.'

(Photograph omitted)