Why is the Government ignoring prison chiefs when they shine a light on our broken system?

Chris Grayling is refusing to listen to those who have seen our prisons up close

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David Ramsbotham was visiting a jail in Cambridgeshire when an urgent fax from the Home Secretary arrived for him.

It was a copy of a statement Jack Straw was about to deliver to MPs. The final paragraph contained the news that he would shortly be “retiring” as Chief Inspector of Prisons.

His feud with Mr Straw – they were barely on speaking terms by then – was the most spectacular falling-out between a chief inspector and a minister.

But his experience was far from unique. Lord Ramsbotham’s predecessor, Sir Stephen Tumim, did not have his contract renewed by Michael Howard.

His successor, Anne Owers, served for nine years but her increasingly pointed reports made uncomfortable reading for her political masters.

The pattern continued this week when the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, said Nick Hardwick would not automatically be re-appointed when his term ends in July and that the post would be advertised.

 

Mr Hardwick retorted that he did not want the job anyway, tweeting: “Told [the Ministry of Justice] I won’t be reapplying. … Can’t be independent of people you are asking for a job.”

Since taking over from Dame Anne he has shone an unforgiving spotlight on the deepening crisis in jails, where smaller numbers of staff are holding a record inmate population.

It is no surprise, as Mr Hardwick recently told The Independent, that suicide levels are rising or, as he warned in his annual report, that a “political and policy failure” had led to a “rapid deterioration in safety” behind bars.

The MoJ has barely disguised its irritation about his remarks. Meanwhile Mr Hardwick has complained to friends that Mr Grayling’s advisers have been briefing against him.

So perhaps it was inevitable there would be a parting of the ways, and a search will soon begin for the seventh Chief Inspector of Prisons since the post’s creation in 1981.

All recent incumbents – the only public sector inspectors to scrutinise a world closed to most of us – have become staunch critics of prison regimes.

It is, after all, the job’s official remit to report on the “treatment of prisoners” and on “conditions within prisons”.

That led Sir Stephen to campaign for better mental health care and an end to “slopping out”; Lord Ramsbotham to call for fewer minor offenders to be locked up; and Dame Anne to warn that inmate care would suffer in proposed “super-jails”.

All have been messages that Home Secretaries and Justice Secretaries, keen to sound tough and play down problems in jails, have been loath to hear.

But Lord Ramsbotham says ministers should be mature enough to consider seriously the picture presented by inspectors, however politically difficult it might prove.

“Either you can take the facts or you can take the fudge your officials are telling you,” he says. “If you can’t take the criticism then you shouldn’t be in the job.”

How can the close, but ultimately mutually destructive, relationship between independent chief inspectors and ministers be reformed?

One option floated by Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, is for inspectors to report to MPs rather than the Government. That would “reduce the risk of political interference”, she says.

But it looks unlikely that ministers will relinquish their power over the Chief Inspector of Prisons in the near future. The dialogue of the deaf is set to continue.

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